On memoir and things I have no experience of—A review of "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life" by William Finnegan

I know nothing about surfing. I've never stood on a board. I've never even seen surfing done in real life (I've spent most of my life in the American Midwest. And even when I lived in Los Angeles for college, I somehow never met any surfers).

Yet it came into my head to write a story that involved surfing. So I read a lot. I was interested in big-wave surfing, so I read Susan Casey's book, "The Wave." I read a lot of journalistic accounts. I watched videos online.

And eventually, probably inevitably, I stumbled upon a two-part article in The New Yorker. The article is titled "Playing Doc's Games" by William Finnegan, and it was published in 1992. It is famous among surfers. The surf magazine The Inertia called it "possibly the greatest surf story ever" and a writer at The Surfer described it as "the best written piece (all 39,000 words of it) ever penned about surf culture." 

I am not a surfer. Yet William Finnegan's article on surfing is one of the best things I have ever read. I would recommend it to anyone, surfer or not (Here, click on the link above. Read it now).

Ostensibly, "Playing Doc's Games" is a profile of "Doc" Mark Renneker, a family practice physician and seemingly fearless, hard-charging big-wave surfer in San Francisco. And yet it is so much more. The author is himself a serious surfer, and he becomes entwined in the narrative. He joins and closely observes a small group of San Francisco locals who surf Ocean Beach, a cold, wild, beach break in the heart of the city. He finds himself increasingly drawn into the orbit of the charismatic "Doc" Renneker, who dominates the local surf scene. Yet Finnegan also finds himself rebelling against Renneker's hold, and against the hold of surfing itself. Finnegan loves surfing, but he's wary of the way that surfing seems to tempt him away from the responsibilities of a serious adult life. This ambivalence becomes a major thread of the article, and the story becomes one of obsession and identity, of the author trying to understand what surfing—this seemingly frivolous, sometimes dangerous passion—means to himself and others. There are indelible character portraits, and precise descriptions of the machismo of the surf culture (there are no women surfing Ocean Beach at this time), the complicated "surfing social contract"; the unsaid rules, the rivalries. And alongside all this are the most beautiful, enthralling, thrilling descriptions of rides and waves that I had read up to that point.

Until I picked up William Finnegan's long-awaited memoir, "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life."

Finnegan has an artist's eye for color and light, and a poet's ability to convey what he's seen in precise, lyrical detail. Nearly every time he describes a wave (even in passing) the scene jumps into high-definition clarity. Surfing a then unknown wave in Fiji (before it became famous to the rest of the world), Finnegan describes "a dark, bottle-green light in the bottom of the wall and a feathering whiteness overhead." Watching surfers on a bright day at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, Finnegan writes, "From the beach, the sea is just a blinding, colorless sheet of afternoon glare, intermittently broken by the black walls of waves." In Hawaii, at a break called Makaha, "Some waves, as they broke, went cobalt at the top, under the lip. Others, the big set waves that barreled in the peak, went a different, warmer shade of navy blue in the shadowed part of the maw."

Finnegan's eye for detail extends beyond waves. This book is about his enchantment with surfing, his years as a surf bum circumnavigating the globe in his twenties in search of good waves. It's about the struggle he feels in his thirties, as he tries to reconcile adult responsibilities and a serious career as a journalist with his passion for the waves. . . . and of his changing relationship with surfing as he hits middle age and beyond. But the book is also, just as importantly, about the people he meets both in and out of the waves.

The book opens in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1966. Finnegan has just there moved at the age of 13 with his family. It is here that Finnegan becomes a serious surfer, where he feels himself truly taken with the enchantment of surfing. But as compelling as his education as a young surfer is the description of his education in a Hawaii public school, the culture shock of a Southern California white boy—who had never given much thought to race before—transplanted suddenly into a complicated racial landscape where he is a "haole," or "white person" in Hawaiian pidgin. As a haole, young Finnegan is part of a despised minority in his rough public school, bullied and beaten until he's taken in by the school's tough-acting racist gang of haoles, who give him protection and self-importantly call themselves the In Crowd. And yet at the same time, Finnegan's best friends are the local surfers he's met in the water, a pair of native Hawaiian brothers attending the same school. The social dynamics are sensitively rendered. Finnegan notes that the racism of the haole In Crowd was "situationist, not doctrinaire," and at one point the In Crowd, to the author's surprise, seemingly overnight welcomes Finnegan's native Hawaiian and Asian friends into the fold, including them in their parties, apparently because they've realized that Finnegan's friends are pretty darn cool. (Finnegan's native Hawaiian and Asian friends consider the party invitations and integration to be no big deal at all—it's only Finnegan who finds it a big deal). This is at a time when the leading local private club on the island remains "whites-only." Structural racial privilege in the adult world and dynamics among kids at a public school are clearly not the same.

Finnegan has a keen and thoughtful eye for such social dynamics, which is displayed throughout the book. He has a searching curiosity about the different cultures and subcultures he encounters, a born journalist's interest in other people. The book flashes between Southern California and Hawaii as the Finnegan family moves between these places for Finnegan's father's job. All the while, young Finnegan is surfing. At one point, an amazing session at Honolua Bay convinces him to drop out of college at UC Santa Cruz and simply chase waves in Hawaii. It's the early 70s, and the hippie counter-culture is still in sway. Finnegan and a friend surf Honolua Bay on a big day while high on LSD—an incredible, bonkers scene that is by itself worth the price of this book.

Finnegan's ambivalence about surfing—the push-pull he feels between riding the waves and a seemingly responsible life on land—starts early. He drops out of college, but soon returns. He finishes his degree, gets a stable job as a brakeman on the railroad while he tries to become a writer. But at the age of 25, he decides to embark with a friend for a serious surf trip, "an open-ended wave chase." They start in the South Pacific. They go to Australia and Southeast Asia. Finnegan's friend drops out, but Finnegan himself continues into Africa. All told, he's gone for three years.

If I have one complaint about this book, it's about what was left out. This book concentrates on Finnegan's surfing life, and yet it's clear that he's also led an extraordinary life out of the waves. Somehow, over the course of this narrative, he transforms himself from wild-child-on-a-surfboard to an award-winning journalist who writes for the New Yorker and files serious pieces on politics and war from conflict-torn regions around the globe. He covers war in Mozambique, El Salvador, Somalia; he reports on organized crime in Mexico, human trafficking in Dubai, and neo-Nazis in America. In his twenties, he spends a year teaching in a black school in apartheid-era South Africa, where he has a political awakening and becomes involved in anti-apartheid activism. And yet only the barest mention of all this enters "Barbarian Days." So much is left out. The book flashes forward through large chunks of time, and at times I found myself frustrated with this. I wanted to read this like a novel, to understand William Finnegan as a character. How did he grow from that bullied young boy in Hawaii to the brash, exceedingly adventurous young man we see discovering a new wave in Fiji? How did he settle down afterward? What happened to so many of the colorful characters we see early in the book?

But these are the limitations of memoir. It's impossible to cover an entire life in depth, particularly a life as big as Finnegan's. Choices must be made; the memoirist selects a certain focus, a particular organizing structure. Finnegan's stories about apartheid-era South Africa, Mozambique, and other adventures have been published as separate books and stories. In this book, it is surfing which provides the frame.

Eventually, the book winds to Ocean Beach, San Francisco, the setting of "Playing Doc's Games." More than 200 pages of backstory precede this chapter, and now Finnegan's ambivalence toward Doc Renneker and surfing have added poignancy and depth. We've seen the passion the author has invested in waves, how surfing has ruled his heart for so long.

It's a struggle that's ongoing. In the conflict between work and surfing, work sometimes throws "a hammerlock on chasing waves. Then surfing, ever wily, twisted free." In his forties, married and with his journalistic career in high gear, Finnegan falls in love with a new wave in Madeira (now gone, alas, due to construction of a seaside roadway). He throws ambivalence aside for it, buying for the first time a "gun," a board specifically shaped to ride very large waves. These are some of the most hair-raising scenes in the book, as Finnegan writes in pulse-pounding detail of the times he and friends nearly die in the waves. Yet he keeps on going back.

Finnegan is now in his sixties and still surfing. There is a valedictory feel to the last chapters, the acknowledgement of inevitable physical decline. And yet the last scene is gloriously affirming.

What use is surfing? What use is art, or any non-monetized joy? Surfing has been "distraction" to Finnegan from work and life, yet it's also sustained him in that work. After his worst moments of war reporting, he's sought peace in the waves. He finds surfing  "an antidote, however, mild, for the horror." A surfing buddy of his, a professional ballet dancer as well as a surfer, perhaps puts it best when he compares music to waves and says that it's about "yielding to something more powerful than yourself."

In its review of "Barbarian Days," the L.A. Times raves that this book is ". . . about a writer's life, and even more generally, a quester's life, more carefully observed and precisely rendered than anything I've read in a long time." I second that opinion. There are some wonderful chapters on Finnegan's development as a writer here (I wish there were more). But yes, beyond writing or surfing, this is a book about questing in general, about chasing pure joy. And there's also this: for this non-surfer, nothing else I've read—no book or journalistic account—has so closely brought me to that feeling of riding a wave.  


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