• After many months in the South Pacific, living out of knapsacks, camping, and looking for waves, Bryan Di Salvatore and I landed in Kirra, Queensland, near the New South Wales border. We were the proud owners of a 1964 Falcon station wagon, bought near Brisbane for three hundred dollars. First we car-camped and surfed up and down the coast, from Sydney to Noosa. It was dazzling to be back in the West, with all its comforts and conveniences, and to be surfing known spots—there were even road signs, SURFING BEACH. It was great to have wheels. Food and gas were cheap. Still, we were nearly broke. And so we rented, with our last funds, a moldy bungalow at the back of a ramshackle complex misnamed the Bonnie View Flats. Most of our neighbors were unemployed Thursday Islanders—Melanesians, from the Torres Strait, up near Papua New Guinea—and some of them possibly had views. We certainly didn’t. But the beach was just across the road, and we had not chosen Kirra randomly. The place had a legendary wave. And the southern summer was starting up and, with it, we hoped, northeast cyclone swells.

    Bryan got a job as a chef in a Mexican restaurant in Coolangatta, the next town south. He told the owners he was half-Mexican, but fumbled it when they asked his name. He said McKnight when he meant to say Rodriguez. He didn’t have a valid work visa under any name. They hired him anyway. I found a couple of backbreaking jobs, including ditchdigging, which deserves its reputation as the worst sort of donkey work, for cash paid daily. Then I got hired as a pot washer in a restaurant at the Twin Towns Services Club, a big casino just over the New South border, fifteen minutes’ walk from our place. I told them my name was Fitzpatrick. The manager said that as a condition of employment I had to shave my beard, and so I did. When Bryan came home that night, he took one look at me and shrieked. He looked genuinely distressed. He said it looked like half my face had been burned off. I was pale where the beard had been, dark brown everywhere else.

    There, there, I said, it’ll grow back. This was actually sweet revenge because Bryan had dogged me for ages about my moth-eaten excuse for a beard. “It looks really good, Bill,” he would say. “You look like a really liberal priest.” He didn’t mean that as a compliment.

    I blew my first wages on surfboards. Kirra is on the Gold Coast, a surfing center, and there were cheap used boards everywhere. I bought two, including a 6'3" Hot Buttered squashtail that turned on a dime and, when necessary, went outlandishly fast. It was a sports car of a surfboard, and a nice change after months of riding my sturdy travel board. Bryan also got new, much smaller boards. The year-round neighborhood spot was called Duranbah. It was a wide-open beachbreak immediately north of the Tweed River mouth, very near my casino job. Duranbah always seemed to have waves. They were often sloppy, but there were gems scattered among the mush. On my twenty-sixth birthday, I got a sweet barrel on a shining right and came out dry.

    The pointbreaks—Kirra, Greenmount, Snapper Rocks, and Burleigh Heads, the spots that put the Gold Coast on the world surfing map—would light up after Christmas, people said. They would start breaking, in fact, on Boxing Day, December 26, we were assured by a nonsurfing neighbor. We laughed at the not-likely specificity but looked forward to the waves.

    In the meantime, I was falling hard for Australia. The country had never interested me. From a distance, it always seemed terminally bland. Up close, though, it was a nation of wisenheimers, smart-mouthed diggers with no respect for authority. The other pot washers at the casino, for instance—they called us dixie bashers—were a weirdly proud crew. In a big restaurant kitchen, we were at the bottom of the job ladder, below the dishwashers, who were all women. We peeled potatoes (which we called idahos), handled the garbage, did the nastiest scrubbing, and hosed down the greasy floors with hot water at the end of the night. And yet we made an excellent wage (I could save more than half my earnings) and, as employees, we had entree to the casino’s private members’ bar, which was on the top floor of the building. We would troop up there after work, tired and ripe, and throw back pints among what passed for high rollers on the Gold Coast. Once or twice, my coworkers spotted the owner of the casino in there. They called him a rich bastard and he, properly chagrined to be rich, bought the next shout.

    I had never seen the dignity of labor upheld so doughtily. Australia was easily the most democratic country I had seen. The usual class markers from other places seemed wonderfully scrambled. Billy McCarthy, one of my fellow dixie bashers, was hale, well-spoken, forty, married with a couple of kids. I quizzed him one night over beers and learned that he had been a professional saxophonist in Sydney, with a day job as a foreman in a perfume factory. He had followed his parents to the Gold Coast, where he went into business with a friend mowing lawns and washing windows, growing bonsai plants to sell at flea markets, potting palms to sell on consignment at shops. He was still working as a nurseryman but needed the steady restaurant wage. He played golf, often with musicians up from Sydney to play the casino’s nightclub or other local venues. If Billy felt embarrassed to be working as a kitchen hand, I could not detect it. He was hardworking, cheerful, politically conservative, usually whistling some corny tune, always ready with a quip. Effortlessly, he made me feel welcome. Once, as I was coming into work, I heard him call out, “There he is, the man they couldn’t shoot, root, or electrocute.”

    The head chef, meanwhile, called me “Fitzie,” to which I always failed, suspiciously, to respond. The chef was the boss in the kitchen. When I once gave him shit about a garishly decorated fish being sent out, he glowered at me and said, “Don’t come the raw prawn with me, cobber.” I couldn’t tell if I had gone too far. But McCarthy and the other dixie bashers got a kick out of the exchange. They took to calling me Raw Prawn.

    Local surfers were less welcoming. There were thousands of them. The ability level was high, the competition for waves acute. Like anywhere, each spot had its crew, its stars, its old lions. But there were full-blown clubs and cliques and family dynasties in every Gold Coast beach town—Coolangatta, Kirra, Burleigh. There were also hordes of tourists and day trippers, and Bryan and I would be assumed to belong to that low stratum of surf life until we could establish otherwise. The guys we began surfing with regularly were fellow expats—an Englishman we called Peter the Pom, a Balinese kid named Adi. One night I took Adi and his cousin, Chook, to a drive-in to see Car Wash. Chook had hair down to his waist and was the skinniest grown man I’d ever met—“chook” is Aussie slang for chicken. He and Adi got drunk on sparkling wine and laughed themselves sick at the movie, which they called Wash Car. They thought African Americans, whom they called Negroes, were the funniest people on earth.

    Chook, Bryan Di Salvatore, Adi, Coolangatta, 1978.
  • The casino threw a fancy staff pre-Christmas party, giving me the chance to relive a painful part of high school that I had missed by being a hippie surfer who would sooner have gone to jail than to the prom. All the young women in the kitchen—waitresses, dishwashers, pastry chefs—were excited about the party. I could hear them giddily reviewing their dresses, dates, hairdos, the band, their after-party plans. I found that I very much wanted to go, perhaps even with a pretty waitress on my arm. But I didn’t own a long-sleeved shirt, let alone the tuxedo that I gathered was de rigueur. More to the point, it was clear that to these girls I didn’t exist. Their swains were all local bravos whom they had probably gone to high school with. I spent the night of the party in my tiny, grotty bungalow room trying to work on my novel. How I hated being a foreigner, always on the outside. The intensity of my shame and self-loathing was unsettling.

    Finally, I met a woman, Sue. She told me I was “as mad as a two-bob watch.” She meant it as a compliment. I liked her enormously. She was a big-mouthed, bosomy, bright-eyed mother of three. Her husband, a local rock musician and heroin addict, was in jail. We lived in fear of his release. Sue and her kids lived in a high-rise beach town called, of all things, Surfers Paradise. Sue was a bon vivant. She loved avant-garde music, art, comedy, Australian history, and all things Aboriginal. She knew lots of Gold Coast gossip—which cokehead surf star had shopped his mates to the cops, which cokehead surf star was rooting his sponsor’s wife. She also knew the beautiful, eucalyptus-forested highlands behind the coast, where cattle grazed and kangaroos bounded and scruffy back-to-the-landers lived in a cannabis-soaked version of the aboriginal Dreamtime. We passed days up there when the surf was flat. Sue’s kids, who ranged in age from eight to fourteen, made me a great jokey collage. Then I got a midnight phone call. The husband had been released. Sue had received a heads-up, bundled the kids into her rattletrap car, and was already hundreds of miles from Surfers Paradise. “Off like a bride’s nightie,” she said. “Off like a bucket of shrimp on a hot day.” She sounded chipper, all things considered. They were en route to her mother’s place in Melbourne, more than a thousand miles away. She would catch me on the flip side. I should watch out for her husband.

    Sue was not really an example of this, but a lot of Australian women seemed to be sick of Australian men. “Ockers,” as they were called—the name came from a popular TV show—drank too much beer, loved their mates and football first, and treated women shabbily. Whether this generalization was true or fair, I could not say, but Bryan and I, once we had been in Kirra long enough to make it clear to the natives that we were resident, began to feel like the innocent benefactors of a mass sexual disillusionment. Compared to your typical ocker, we were sensitive, modern guys. Gold Coast women had time for us. Even when we behaved caddishly, we seemed to be an improvement on the local brand. I missed Sue, and was happy to continue not meeting her husband, but my heartsick wallflower phase passed, thank God.

    I got a new job, as a barman at the Queensland Hotel in Coolangatta, which was an old-fashioned pub during the week and on weekend nights a rock and roll club known as the Patch. (Sue and I saw Bo Diddley there.) I learned to pull pints of beer properly under the close supervision of a career barman named Peter. Peter told me that if I got anything wrong, the customer had the right to throw the beer (but not the glass) in my face and demand a repull. The list of punishable errors was long: too much head, too little head, flat beer, warm beer, too little beer, any hint of soap in the glass. This news had its intended effect: I pulled scared and carefully. Weekday nights were slow and easy. Friday and Saturday nights at the Patch, which was in a big dark barnlike building out behind the old pub, were madness, with screaming customers six deep at the bar, blasting punk rock, and ten thousand rum and Cokes. The summer tourist season was starting. After work, I would walk down the beach road back to Kirra, grateful for the silence, stopping at the top of the point where the great wave was said to break, peering into the sloshing blackness beyond the base of the jetty. All the Gold Coast waves we had surfed so far had been sweet, warm, soft, a little sloppy. People said Kirra, when it broke, was a rocket-fueled pointbreak with crazy, hammering power. That was hard to picture.

    William Finnegan standing at the top of Kirra Point.
  • The first cyclone swell hit, of course, right on Boxing Day. Kirra woke up. The hard-to-picture became the can’t-look-anywhere-else. But the wave was a strange, ungainly beast, nothing like a California pointbreak. Large amounts of sandy water were rushing around the end of the jetty, forming a torrent down the coast. It was overcast and glary that first morning, the ocean surface gray and brown and blinding silver. The sets looked smaller than they were, seeming to drift almost aimlessly onto the bar outside the jetty, then suddenly standing up taller and thicker than they should have, hiccuping, and finally unloading in a ferocious series of connectable sections, some of the waves going square with power—the lip threw out that far when it broke. It was hard to believe that this wave was breaking on a sand bottom. I had never seen anything like it. The crowd was bad at dawn and rapidly getting worse. We got amongst it, as the Aussies say.

    I probably caught three waves that day. Nobody would give me an inch. The downcoast current turned the whole place into a paddling contest. Nobody spoke. The paddling was too grueling, and the least pause or inattention meant yardage lost. I was in good shape, but the top locals were in obscenely good shape, and this was what they lived for. Near the top, near the takeoff, the current got even stronger. As a set approached, you had to sprint upriver at a precise, not obvious angle, somehow putting just enough distance between yourself and the flailing, growling pack so that you were the one person in the pit as the water dredged off the bar, and then swerving and, with a last few hard strokes, catching the wave before it pitched. Then, assuming you stuck the takeoff, you had to surf it, speed-pumping like crazy on one of the fastest waves in the world. It was a lot like work. If you made a wave, though, it felt worth it. It felt worth anything. This, I thought, was a wave I could get serious about.

    It didn’t have the open-ocean size or broad-faced beauty of a Honolua Bay. It was a far more compact, ropier wave. The first hundred yards had an amphitheater feel, with spectators lining the jetty at the point, the guardrail along the coast road, a steep green bluff that rose behind the road, and even sometimes a parking lot in front of the Kirra Hotel, a large plain pub tucked under the bluff. Beyond that it was open beach, and when the swell was big and the angle was right, a ride could run on for another two hundred yards, unobserved, an empty, ecstatic racetrack. It wasn’t a mechanical wave. It had flaws, variety, slow patches, close-outs. Concussion wavelets off the jetty or the inside bar often ran back out to sea, marring the third or fourth waves of a set. But the cleaner waves had a quality of compression that was, sometimes literally, stunning. The heaviest waves actually seemed to get shorter, they gathered so much force as they began to detonate across the main bar, a shallow stretch known as the Butter Box section. Even with a sand bottom and a makable-looking wave, it was a deeply intimidating section. You had to come into it fast but stay low on the face, be ready to duck when the thick lip threw horizontally, and then somehow stay over your board through an ungodly acceleration. The Butter Box section gave new meaning to the old surf imprecation, “Pull in!” There was only one way to make it—through the barrel, pulling in.

    I had surfed my share of frontside tubes, from a reliable inside section at Lahaina Harbor Mouth to a slabby mutant wave in Santa Cruz called Stockton Avenue, where I snapped boards on three-foot days and was lucky not to get hurt on the shallow rock reef. But Stockton was a short, freaky wave—a one-trick pony. Kirra was just as hollow, and it was a pointbreak. It was as long as Rincon or Honolua, and hollower than either one. And the bottom, again, was sand, not coral or cobblestone—an unprecedented setup, in my experience, at a great pointbreak. The sand was not especially soft, I learned. I hit it so hard once, in the Butter Box, that I came up with a concussion, unable to say what country I was in. Another time, also in the Butter Box, and not on a big wave, I came up with my leash wrapped so tightly around my midsection that I could not breathe. On yet another occasion, same section, my leash tore through my rail and ripped half the tail off my favorite board. So the sand was a blessing, certainly, but the violence of the wave remained—inseparable, as always, from its fierce appeal.

    The pecking order at Kirra was disconcertingly long, and the guys on top tended to be national and world champions. Michael Peterson, a two-time Australian champ, ruled the lineup when we started surfing there. He was a dark, brooding, brawny character, with a thick mustache and a crazy look in his eye. He took any wave he wanted, and he surfed like a demon, with a wide power stance and savage hacks. One morning, I noticed him staring at me. We were near the takeoff spot, and I was paddling hard, as always, trying to beat the pack to the next set wave, but Peterson stopped paddling. “Bobby!” he cried. I shook my head no and kept going. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. “You’re not Bobby? You look exactly like my mate who’s in jail! I thought they’d let him out. Bobby!” After that incident, I often found Peterson staring at me in the water. We became nodding acquaintances, even though I spooked him, and I felt the pecking order ease around me when other guys noticed me and the legendary Peterson exchanging little g’days. I was happy to take the break. Like everybody else, I just wanted more waves.

    William Finnegan, Kirra.
  • Bryan and I had the advantage of living about as close to Kirra as it was possible to live—unless you lived at the Kirra Hotel, which had no rooms. I checked the jetty every night on my walk home from work, and if there was any hint of a swell, we would hit it before first light. It turned out to be a great surf season, one of the best in memory, people said, with at least one solid swell virtually every week in January and February. One cyclone, Kerry, smashed through the Solomon Islands and then seemed to drift around the Coral Sea for weeks, pumping out powerful northeast swell. Our early-morning go-outs were often fruitful, yielding fresh waves with, for an hour or two, relatively few people. There was a regular predawn crew, not all of them especially hot surfers. There was a gawky, friendly, bearded guy who rode a big-wave gun, hardly turning at all, and who always yelled, as he jumped to his feet and set his line, “I got a lady doctor.” I happened to know the next line in that song: “She cure da pain for free.” She did.

    The Gold Coast was an object lesson in how I was destroying my body through surfing. Looking around at Australians who spent a lot of time in tropical sun for which they were genetically unprepared—most were of Northern European ancestry—I could see my own sorry medical future. Every other surfer, even teenagers, seemed to have pterygia—sun-caused cataracts—clouding their blue eyes. The scabby ears and purple noses and scarily mottled arms of the middle-aged were fair warning: basal-cell carcinoma (if not squamous-cell, if not melanoma) ahead. I already had pterygia myself, in both eyes. Not that I took any preventive measures, or that surfing in colder places was necessarily any less damaging. My years in the freezing ocean in Santa Cruz had given me exostoses—bony growths in the ear canal, known as “surfer’s ear”—which were now constantly trapping seawater, causing painful infections, and would eventually require three operations. Then there was the usual run of surf injuries: scrapes, gashes, reef rashes, a broken nose, torn ankle cartilage. I had no interest in any of this at the time. All I wanted from my body was for it to paddle faster and surf better.

    I did become, at Kirra, a paddling machine. My arms basically stopped getting tired. Getting to know the downcoast current helped. It was constant, but it had vagaries, weak spots, eddies—sometimes, at different tides, even deep slow troughs slightly outside—and its patterns changed with the swell size and direction and the movement of the sand. There were relatively few guys exploiting those vagaries, and we got to know each other. We competed so hard, trying to make each stroke count, that we rarely spoke, but a rough wave-sharing arrangement emerged nonetheless, out of some combination of necessity and respect. I began to get more waves. And I began to learn what to do with them.

    The key to surfing Kirra was entering the Butter Box at full speed, surfing close to the face—pulling in—and then, if you got inside, staying calm in the barrel, having faith that it just might spit you out. It usually didn’t, but I had waves that teased me two, even three times, with the daylight hole speeding ahead, outrunning me, and then pausing and miraculously rewinding back toward me, the spilling lip seemingly twisting like the iris of a camera lens opening until I was almost out of the hole, and then reversing and doing it again, receding in beautiful hopelessness and returning in even more beautiful hope. These were the longest tube rides of my life.

    Which raised the question of claiming. The best thing to do, by far, if you came flying out of a deep tube was nothing. Keep surfing. Act as if such things happened to you all the time. This was difficult, if not impossible. The emotional release of some little celebration was practically a physical necessity. Maybe not an obnoxious fist pump, or arms thrown up touchdown-style, but some acknowledgment that something rare and deeply thrilling had just happened. On one of the bigger days we got at Kirra, when the sets were swinging wide and breaking in slightly deeper, much bluer water than usual, I pulled into a tube that was oblong, not cavernous, and saw the ceiling ahead begin to shatter—to chandelier. I bowed my head, crouching low, expecting the ax, but held my line and squeaked through. As I came out, astonished, rising and trying to stay cool, I noticed Bryan among the paddlers going over the shoulder. I heard a few hoots, but nothing from him. Later, I asked him if he had seen the wave. He said he had. He said I had overclaimed it. I had come out with my hands raised in prayer, he said. Pretty lame. That wasn’t praying, I said. It was just a little thank-you. My hands had been clasped, not raised. I was mortified. Also angry. It was a childish thing to care about, but his disdain for my elation seemed mean. Still, I vowed never to claim again, no matter how great the wave.

    Greatness is relative, of course. On that same big swell, perhaps that same afternoon, I was walking back after an extra-long ride that had carried me halfway to Bilinga, the next village north—carried me so far that paddling back seemed silly. I had decided to walk to Kirra and try to punch through up near the point. I was alone on the beach. The swell was peaking, the wind offshore, the waves now seemingly nonstop. Far outside, I saw a tiny surfer in red trunks pull into a big blue barrel, emerge, disappear, and emerge again. It was a guy I had never seen before, surfing at a speed I had rarely, if ever, seen before. He kept doing it—disappearing, emerging. He seemed to be riding in the wrong place on his board—too far forward—but somehow turning from there, making small adjustments that kept him in the barrel for ridiculous amounts of time. He kept going, and his stance, I could see as he got closer, was casual, almost defiant. He claimed none of the barrels he threaded. He was getting one of the best rides I had ever seen, and he was acting as if he deserved it. I actually couldn’t understand, technically, half of what he was doing. Nose turns inside the tube? It reminded me of the first time I saw a shortboard in action—Bob McTavish at Rincon. What I didn’t know was that this kid in red trunks was the newly crowned world champion, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew. He was a local boy, just home from the international contest circuit. Physically slight but fearless in big waves and absurdly talented, he was the Mick Jagger of surfing, endlessly lauded in the mags for striking rock-star poses in heavy situations. He had grown up surfing Kirra, and the ride I saw was a master class in how it could be done, if you happened to be the best surfer in the world.

    Barbarian Days is published by Murdoch Books and is available online

Comments

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 8:48am

A wonderful read.

Great start to the day.

Ignorance is Zen

atticus's picture
atticus's picture
atticus commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 9:00am

Agreed Zen. More of this kind of content Swellnet. It's wonderful.

tonybarber's picture
tonybarber's picture
tonybarber commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 10:25am

Good read for us old buggers … hah, the good ol times !

dewhurst's picture
dewhurst's picture
dewhurst commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 11:03am

Well it sounds like a different world to us 'young buggers'. I think I was born in the wrong generation.

wildenstein8's picture
wildenstein8's picture
wildenstein8 commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 11:05am

How great is the exchange with MP? "Bobby!"

And then using the mistaken identity to get more sets!

Ash's picture
Ash's picture
Ash commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 11:39am

Thats well written and i want to read more. Me and two mates were camped behind Broken Head in '79 surfing nice but average waves for months but went home just before Christmas and after reading that I realise that was one of bigger mistakes we made.

daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kaha... commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 11:45am

Have you read the whole book Nettle? Is it all as good as that??

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:10pm

Well it's all written in the same style. That being, a very observational technique with little or no indulgences into conceptual thinking. Finnegan rarely lets you into his secret garden. However, his language and expression is crystalline clear, which compels you to keep reading, and add that to his Forrest Gump life - early days at Hawaii, discovering Tavarua, Kirra with MP, Jardim do Mar before the breakwall - and you can expect to lose a few nights curled up in bed, book on lap, with the clock on the wrong side of midnight.

My favourite chapter was Madeira and his last burst of surfing gluttony before middle age slowed him down.

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 2:42pm

Yes strange style almost stilted at times not flowing and stripped to the absolute basics. Does tell a good yarn though painting the picture well producing a page turner. I was 19 surfing Broken Head in the Spring of 1979 and MR came out one day and it was similar to how he talks about MP. MR didn't say a word just caught some great waves and put on a tube clinic with what is now his retro twinnie. Different on shore though all smiles and friendly whilst getting mobbed.

Shatner'sBassoon's picture
Shatner'sBassoon's picture
Shatner'sBassoon commented Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015 at 2:18pm

stunet wrote:

My favourite chapter was Madeira and his last burst of surfing gluttony before middle age slowed him down.

Just bought this for Father's Day and having it sent directly to Pops. Might have to get a copy for myself. When was he there? There's a certain hollow right point he must've surfed before it got fucked up by breakwalls and backwash. Jardim was only last decade.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015 at 2:40pm

The Madeira chapter is called Basso Profundo and begins with his first trip in 1995, continuing for ten years with a trip a year. He stays in the village at Jardim and mainly surfs there, including some mighty sessions - caught in a rising swell and fading light etc.. Also explains the breakwall fuck up from a different perspective than the Save Our Waves doco; how the island was awash with EU money and the historically poor islanders just went a bit loopy with it.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:11pm

I have read the whole thing and yes it is all that good. Even better in parts.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:22pm

Not sure about you BB, but after I'd finished reading I kinda wished Finnegan had taken a few internal digressions along the way. A bit of chin-stroking, done by the right person, can be a wonderful thing.

whaaaat's picture
whaaaat's picture
whaaaat commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:29pm
stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:43pm

Hey cheers Whaaat. Not sure how I missed that, Aunty-loving lefty that I am.

gannet's picture
gannet's picture
gannet commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:47pm

whaaaat wrote: Stu, have a listen to this.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/riding-the-wa...

Phillip Adams talks surfing?
It's like all my christmases have come at once!

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:32pm

I agree Stu, a little bit more personal insight would have helped. He must have enough material for a much more substantial memoir so maybe he is saving it for that. He is also a New Yorker writer and that kind of detached observational style is their hallmark. For me one of the best things about the book is his dual insider/outsider status. He is deeply involved in surfing and has insights that only a life-long surfer could have, yet he has also lived completely other lives as a war correspondent and professional writer. This makes him ideally suited to get it right in explaining surfing to a non-surfing audience. It is also really rare to read anything about surfing in which its absolute superiority to any other activity ever indulged in by humankind is not taken for granted. The only thing I could quibble with in the whole book is his characterisation of surfing being completely accepted by wider Australian society. By ’78 some progress had been made, for better or worse, in that direction, but if he had arrived only a few years earlier he would have found that Australian attitudes were very similar to the negative ones he knew in the US. We were long haired bums or hippies or whatever who drew immediate suspicion, if not outright abuse, in many situations. We were also targets for heavy handed policing in many country towns. Driving around with surfboards on top the car was an invitation to be booked!
It also suffered slightly by being read directly after the profoundly serious Ta Nehasi Coates book "Between The World And Me" in which he so thoroughly takes down white American culture that it was hard to see Finnegan (and by extension all of us) as anything other than a perfect example of that "white dream" culture.

rooftop's picture
rooftop's picture
rooftop commented Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 3:42pm

BB, he touches on his first world guilt while surfing in third world countries in the RN interview referenced earlier.

t-diddy's picture
t-diddy's picture
t-diddy commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:39pm

sic!! forrrest gump indeed.

GREGLVOV's picture
GREGLVOV's picture
GREGLVOV commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 12:55pm

A touch of home fills my head with the groin take-off and the concrete floor of the Patch.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 2:36pm

Good read. Really enjoyed the book, agree with Stu and BB : that cool observational style could have dug a bit deeper at times, but oh well, not everyone is as articulate as us convict scum.

btw, poor cunt looked like he'd just escaped the Cambodian Killing fields. Hadn't he heard of pizza and beer?

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Monday, 31 Aug 2015 at 9:29pm

Best read I've had in a long time.

Cheers Swellnet.

Be getting hold of a copy of that immediately.

Bob's 2 Bob's's picture
Bob's 2 Bob's's picture
Bob's 2 Bob's commented Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015 at 9:44am

"The only thing I could quibble with in the whole book is his characterisation of surfing being completely accepted by wider Australian society."

It must have been a very bold move for a company like Coke to sponsor a major event in Sydney?

Freeload69

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015 at 1:32pm

Coke had picked up on the growing influence of surfing in youth culture which was where their market was. Acceptance of surfing and surfers was far greater among young people, though there were some you had to watch out for! From memory Coke had already produced large billboards featuring surfing before sponsoring the event. My take has always been that Coke got far more out of surfing than surfing ever got out of Coke.

Bob's 2 Bob's's picture
Bob's 2 Bob's's picture
Bob's 2 Bob's commented Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015 at 3:52pm

I see and agree.

Freeload69

spencie's picture
spencie's picture
spencie commented Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 3:01pm

Remember when Ampol sponsored surfing? At least surfing contests!

easterly

jaunkemps's picture
jaunkemps's picture
jaunkemps commented Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 6:25pm

I think we all have stories about the Goldy, in 88 hanging with the boys from Cronulla who were staying all 8 of them it seemed in a unit behind the KB Hotel, 20 + sticks piled up on the front balcony some good some not but a lot of toast all the same, Thursday night Patch night $1 drinks hell hangovers crazy hot gals, driving from Nimbin on the back roads there then driving home the same way everyone asleep cept me, that was a tough drive, I never smashed thank god thank Mt Warning maybe, fond memories, hope all you boys are still alive and smiling, be cool bro's........

Bob's 2 Bob's's picture
Bob's 2 Bob's's picture
Bob's 2 Bob's commented Friday, 4 Sep 2015 at 5:53am

Thanks Blindboy for the insight. Ampol and Coke? Also BB, was this the period when people were joining the "special club" ?

Freeload69

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Tuesday, 19 Apr 2016 at 10:18am

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize was just announced with Barbarian Days winning first place for autobiography:

http://www.pulitzer.org/winners/william-finnegan

Andrew P's picture
Andrew P's picture
Andrew P commented Tuesday, 19 Apr 2016 at 10:35am

Such an incredible book, and absolute pleasure to read. Thanks for the heads up!

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Tuesday, 19 Apr 2016 at 2:00pm

After that excerpt and from the glowing praise above, just bought it then.

Gonna put Cormac McCarthy on hold Stu.

Ignorance is Zen

Eugene Green's picture
Eugene Green's picture
Eugene Green commented Tuesday, 19 Apr 2016 at 10:56pm

Best short read in a long while. Off to the bookshop tomorrow!

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Wednesday, 20 Apr 2016 at 10:57am

New Yorker have just put up the original 1992 piece that ultimately developed into the book.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1992/08/24/playing-docs-games-part-one

benski's picture
benski's picture
benski commented Saturday, 29 Oct 2016 at 7:50pm

I just finished this. I don't read much for fun because I spend so much time at work in silent critical thought (and vocal critical debate for that matter), that sitting down with a book to specifically stay in my head is generally the last thing I want to do. Nonetheless, my wife mentioned the book to me when it came out as it popped up in her kindle list and she'd read the first chapter or two. I said I'd get to it because there was a buzz on Swellnet too. Finally, I had a decent spell of free time a few weeks ago so I bought it and got started. I'm glad I did, it was a brilliant read. A life so thoroughly well lived and extremely relatable that it made me question my own choices throughout. I mean, who hasn't looked over a map of the world and pondered the remaining relatively uncharted coastlines? Uncharted from a surf perspective I mean. Why haven't I followed that impulse the way Finnegan did? So many of the places I dreamed about visiting 20 and even 10 years ago are now showing up on clips on the internet.

That kind of critical self-analysis and comparison seems to be a part of my character and I think that is part of why reading isn't something I seek for solace and free time. It's a perfect cue for me to dive into that kind of thinking, and while it can be extremely positive to do that, it can also lead me down rabbit holes that might be best left unexplored.

In his review of the book , blindboy wrote that Finnegan will be the most important writer on surfing. I have certainly never read a better description of the experience of riding a wave than in this book. But I disagree that Finnegan will be seen as an important "surf writer". I don't think the book is particularly important as a surf publication. I found it to be an incredibly personal tale that coincidentally focused on surfing because of who he is not because of what surfing is. The book was about him and surfing happened to be the context. I think it would have been little different if he'd been raised in Colorado and Utah and happened to ski. His travels would have been back country missions to the Himalayas, or some other far flung mountain range, rather than the extended tropical jaunt across the Pacific and Indo, but his personal journey the same. Clearly we can't separate him from surfing but I'm using the different context to try and make the point I found surfing to be incidental to the story in the book.

And what a story, and what a story teller he is. I really enjoyed the read but to me it was incredibly melancholy, right from the start. There were times when I had to put it down for several days because I couldn't take more of the bleak tone without a break for myself. But it was so spare it left him the freedom to explore his own growth and experience in quite a sincere and masculine way. I absolutely loved that.

I'm still not sure if I was imagining the melancholy, imposing my own narrative or something, but then I read what I think are the most important words in the book that reveal what I see as the principal theme. One honest sentence, truly deserving its own paragraph:

YOU HAVE TO HATE how the world goes on.

Can't we all relate to that sometimes? I found something in every section that clicked with my own journey through life so far even though it no way resembles Finnegan's, I haven't surfed anything approaching 10 feet Hawaiian and he must be about 25 years my senior. As corny as it sounds, after finishing the book today, I wanted to meet the man, shake his hand, say well done and thanks.

Island Bay's picture
Island Bay's picture
Island Bay commented Sunday, 30 Oct 2016 at 6:01am

Benski, I agree with your observation on his melancholy. While prone to it myself, I definitely don't think you imagined it.

A few quick words about his prose: there is so much hype, so much overstated guff and 'content' thrown at us these days, and I find it liberating to read spare, even bleak, prose like Finnegan's.

tonybarber's picture
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tonybarber commented Sunday, 30 Oct 2016 at 8:00am

Geez, I didn't get the 'melancholy' feel as you mention. It may be the age difference, as you suggest. But he did articulate the mood and feel of the day pretty well, very well. Sure his book was personal but be sure he articulated well the feeling of a surfer in that era.

girlygirl's picture
girlygirl's picture
girlygirl commented Sunday, 30 Oct 2016 at 10:13am

This is one of the best books I've ever read.

girlygirl