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'Barbarian Days' tells Bill Finnegan's story as surfer, traveler, and writer

New Yorker writer William Finnegan traveled the globe in search of the perfect wave.

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    Barbarian Days:
    A Surfing Life
    By William Finnegan
    Penguin Press
    464 pp.
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An up-front confession: I’ve been watching for this book for nearly a decade. Back in my own pigtail days, when I was pounding pavements to craft stories for journalism school, we had the pleasure of a master class with Bill Finnegan, the kind of affair where the expert shares his philosophy of reporting and history of becoming a reporter, and then critiques the work of a few young upstarts. We were fresh-faced 20-somethings, working the pecking order of graduate school and New York freelancing. To our awe and envy, we learned that Finnegan’s school had been far different: He’d learned to write while traveling the world in search of a good wave.

The way Finnegan told it, surfing is actually a terrific proxy for journalism. His metaphor was so apt that even though I only bodysurf it stuck with me; after all, dedicated surfers start by learning one good spot: its moods, its tides, its weathers. They learn to find, in their bodies, where the best waves are breaking. They start traveling up and down the coast and then to odd corners of the world to read other oceans. They accumulate geographies and wanderlust, get obsessed with obscure charts, and camp by beaches waiting for breaks. Sometimes it’s dull. Sometimes there are days of boring chop. And sometimes, by canny luck and skill, they catch a transcendent wave. They become readers of elements.

Now it’s a pleasure to have Finnegan read through his own career as a wave-rider in Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. He begins, chronologically, on Newport Beach in California’s golden '60s, follows the boy-Finnegan learning the pecking order on Ventura beaches, and highlights him catching predawn waves each morning as a young teenager in Hawaii, where his father (who also started his career as a journalist) was stationed as a TV producer. After college in Santa Cruz (where surfing beneath the cliffs is a way of life), Finnegan tours the world. He takes on beaches from Polynesia to Indonesia to South Africa, where he supports himself teaching at an all-black school during the last years of apartheid. By the early ’80s, Finnegan finds himself surfing the cold waters of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. He’s got a steady girlfriend and a book contract, and he’s penning a few pieces for that biggest of big waves: "The New Yorker," where he lands a job as a reporter in 1987.

If this seems like a charmed and fabulous trip, it’s worth remembering that both as a journalist and as a surfer Finnegan has a knack for seeming fearlessness. Consider this passage about learning the waves on Tonga. “The Hihifo peninsula is eight miles long and I was at the tip if it, being swept seaward and sideways like flotsam. I had to fight my way back into the lagoon, grabbing coral heads to hold position, getting dragged and sliced, and though I had no time to think about it, scared.”

When Finnegan does have time to think he reflects on why such an experience holds him: “Everything out there was disturbingly interlaced with everything else. Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration....They were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy....”

In our own moment of Facebook-inflected travel and helicopter parenting, the years Finnegan spent on the open sea and the open road themselves can feel wonderfully foreign – years of traveling remote spots with no Internet, intermittent phone calls home. Finnegan lands odd jobs in odd towns: his sheer immersion in place is in adventure. One of my favorite segments follows Finnegan and a friend as they cross inland Australia in a rickety car, passing miles over a dusty track made dangerous by sudden kangaroo crossings. They pass the time by reading a battered old stack of New Yorkers cover to cover, seeing whose prose holds up.

Occasionally, remembering Finnegan’s presentation a decade ago, I wish that he’d shared more explicitly here what surfing has meant to him as a reporter. One catches it in glimpses, like when Finnegan describes the process of learning one’s first local beach: “The close painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell – a longitudinal study, through season after season – is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break. Getting a spot wired – truly understanding it – can take years.”

Finnegan also leaves mainly absent how, after years on the road with a famously commitment-phobic crew of young men, he found himself able to settle with both wife and daughter. This (and his eventual arrival as a prized contributor at the New Yorker) feel like swells the story drives towards. But in the end Finnegan’s story veers away from them — and his prose gives way to more time afloat with men on the water.

Still, I was entranced by this briny book and found it hard to put it down. I read it by the cold Northern California Pacific on a weekend when the waters were inadvisable because millions of blue velella jellyfish were washing up on shore. I wondered if Finnegan would have braved the waves anyway. After all, Finnegan, now in his 60s, still surfs wildly.

His book begins with a rueful epigraph from Edward St. Aubyn that Finnegan may mean to apply to himself: “He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was a splash of color landing on a page.” But the key here is “almost.” Finnegan’s work is a tribute to wandering. Finnegan now builds sentences, and he – who once shunned even using a surfboard leash – may now be more tethered, but he’s certainly captured those colorful splashings for the rest of us.  In this book, the depths shimmer.

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