What do war journalism and surfing have in common? On the face of it, not much: surfing is a frivolous pastime and war reporting a humanitarian endeavor to shine a light on violent conflict in ways that put the observer’s life on the line. However, the parallels between the two haunt journalist William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, his acclaimed memoir about 50 years spent chasing the best waves on the planet. Nowhere are these parallels more explicit than in the aftermath of a brutal surf session on Madeira, where Finnegan is almost killed by a wave, “a hideous, boiling, two-story wall of whitewater,” that momentarily sucks the deep ocean dry before crashing down upon him. Shaken by his proximity to death, he asks his wife Caroline why she “didn’t get angry about all the stupid risky things I did,” like “war reporting” and “surfing.”
If Barbarian Days eschews delving into this parallel, it is perhaps because for a reporter to dwell on personal emotions amidst the pervasive human suffering he witnesses would be obscene. By contrast, the subject of a life spent surfing the iconic waves of the planet, such as Honolua, Tavarua, Kirra, Ocean Beach, and Jardim, gives Finnegan a canvas for the array of emotions elicited by encounters with violence—perhaps because surfing entails immersion in natural beauty. These emotions include discovery, fear, and “a dopamine rush that was both familiar and rare, that required nerve and experience.” There is hardship, deprivation, physical drubbing, injuries, and “near-drowning.”
Finnegan also experiences the awe inspired by majestic waves. Here he is on Tavarua, in Fiji, riding the last wave of the day:
The wave felt like a test of faith, or a test of sanity, or an enormous, undeserved gift. The laws of physics appeared to have been relaxed. A hollow wave was roaring off into deeper water. Not possible. It felt like a runaway train, an eruption of magical realism, with that ocean-bottom light and the lacy white canopy.
Such encounters with beauty are most intense in Barbarian Days at what Finnegan calls “the fear line.” Throughout the memoir, magical waves become, in an instant, mortally dangerous, as in Finnegan’s close brush on Madeira. When the surfer crosses the fear-line, the absurdity or even madness of the surfer’s practice is palpable.
Finnegan has organized Barbarian Days as a chronicle of his initiation into surfing, which he consistently links to a friend or companion who becomes his subject, and who leads him from the waves into surrounding social scenes. Finnegan discovers the “siren song” of surfing, for example, as young teen in Hawaii, together with school friend Roddy Kaulukukui, who helps him navigate the racial tensions among haoles and Hawaiians vividly depicted in the first chapter of his memoir. Finnegan’s anthropological focus then shifts from land society to surfers’ camaraderie, portraying an inwardly focused, male society held together by bonds of friendship, local knowledge, and aggression. This fraternity shares a code of silence, the source of which Finnegan is reticent to explain—his own capitulation to its authority.
Religion permeates his descriptions of surfing, from the time when the “junior atheist” learns of the power of the gods in pre-Western Hawaii to Barbarian Days’s final scene.
Finnegan’s memoir stands out among the slim literature on surfing for the glimpses it offers into bonds among men who organize their lives around tide, wind, swell, and the treacherous topographies of the coast. Some of these attachments are affectionate, such as Finnegan’s friendship with Roddy. or, later in life, living in New York, with the dancer John Selya, whom he portrays running off to perform in Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out after a morning charging harsh surf in an ice storm off Long Beach. Other bonds are more ambivalent; notably, Finnegan’s relation to the oncologist Mark Renneker, known locally as Doc, who leads the daredevil surfers at San Francisco’s brutal Ocean Beach. The subject of Renneker and the Ocean Beach surfers was, indeed, Finnegan’s first foray into surfing anthropology, in the form of a 1992 New Yorker article titled “Playing Doc’s Games.” Renneker, Finnegan recalls, “hated it.”
Finnegan’s willingness to expose outsiders to surf fraternities places his book in a lineage of classics about what seaman and author Joseph Conrad called “the bonds of the sea.” Finnegan’s barbarians take their place next to Richard Henry Dana’s comrades before the mast, Mark Twain’s riverboat pilots, and the myriad seamen contending with storms and human error in the tales of Conrad. Finnegan is the first to insert surfing into this bookshelf of seafaring literature, and he does so as an anthropologist and coastal oceanographer, possessed with a fine literary sensibility. Notably, while he describes the ocean with a surfer’s technical jargon, he imbues surfing practices with emotions, making them accessible even to the non-surfing reader who may not grasp the import of specific details.
Such an ability to bring outsiders inside technical knowledge is one for which sea writers have long been famed. We do not need to understand the intricacies of sailing to recognize that the young captain has dangerously taken his ship too close to land at the end of Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” when the captain’s mate exclaims, “She will never weather, and you are too close now to stay. She’ll drift ashore before she’s round. Oh my God!” Similarly, we do not need to know what it means to be “trapped in the impact zone” on a “ten-foot west set,” “taking each wave on the head, ditching my board, diving deep, getting cruelly rumbled,” to understand Finnegan’s submission to the ocean one evening on Oahu.
Finnegan calls this submission at Sunset a “baptism.” Religion permeates his descriptions of surfing, from the time when the “junior atheist” learns of the power of the gods in pre-Western Hawaii to Barbarian Days’s final scene. Refusing theology, this memoir is nonetheless steeped in its figures of speech: “baptism,” “the test of faith,” “hands raised in prayer,” and so on.
Finnegan is not the first to identify the religious quality in surfing. The sport’s Hawaiian roots as a spiritual practice of harmony with nature are regularly contrasted to the Western quest for nature’s domination in writing on surfing. Finnegan, however, refuses this romanticism. The deity presiding over Finnegan’s vision is the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele, whose demands for sacrifice and “jealous and violent” nature reflect the cruelty of the ocean. Finnegan’s sense that he can only explain the thrall of surfing as a harsh mysticism is reaffirmed in the memoir’s final scene, set at the evocatively named Cloudbreak in Fiji—reputed to be among the most challenging waves in the world. The session begins with a figuratively sacrificial moment, when Finnegan falls badly and hits his head, bleeding from the throat. The local boatman, a “square-shouldered goofyfoot [someone who surfs with his left foot on the back of the board] named Inia Nakalevu,” steps forward to help him take waves safely, accompanying his guidance with a catechism—of some sort—on the sublime altar of the reef.
“Do you know God, Bill?” Inia asks, as he selects waves for Finnegan, in conditions so dangerous that a wipe-out might result in death. “Do you know God loves you?” “Not really,” the avowedly atheistic Finnegan answers, refusing “the dark-skinned evangelist’s” faith, even as he owes his preservation to Inia’s exquisite local knowledge. A marvelous athlete, “Inia … had it bad,” Finnegan comments, adding addiction to the mix.
What is surfing? We are left with no affirmation, only Finnegan’s longing that “this” would not end, and the waves that “kept pouring through, shining and mysterious, filling the air with an austere exaltation.”