Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

blindboy
The Depth Test

519q4thkrl._sx336_bo1204203200_.jpgWith a few honourable exceptions, writing aimed at the general public about surfing has suffered the miserable literary fate of falling into a narrow space, defined at one end by the limited literary abilities of its participants and at the other, by the inadequate understanding of more skilled writers. Finnegan has no such problems. As the author of numerous books, a staff writer at the New Yorker for over 25 years and a contributor to such exalted literary journals as The New York Review Of Books, he knows how to write well. Equally, as a life-long, well travelled surfer, he has an intimate understanding of his subject. 

So this is a substantial work that easily eclipses anything comparable and instantly achieves classic status. For the foreseeable future anyone seeking to understand surfing across the last 50 years will turn here first. Yet the word 'Life' in the title also resonates throughout the text. The surfing experiences are deeply embedded in their contexts of place, family, friends, and relationships. We see the naive teenager and his gang of friends hanging out and surfing around Diamond Head and Waikiki. We follow the the aimless youth and his best friend as they spend years travelling in search of waves and themselves, and we meet the established, professional writer taking a break from more serious work. And through all of this the view is always out to what is happening around him so that our view of the man himself arises only as the space left unfilled by his observations. Form and ground.

This style is very much the New Yorker house style of detached, clear-sighted, longform reporting so the work is built on careful observation, long periods of deliberate recollection and equally long periods of careful research. The writing itself may appear simple but its simplicity is deceptive. Its power arises from the intricate construction of its passages and the careful layering and sequencing of the images so that the reader is carried along effortlessly. There is nothing artificial or pretentious here, no striving for literary effect for its own sake. Nor is there the kind of selective memory, so common in memoirs, that leaves a carefully curated portrait of someone who could never have existed. Finnegan's view is unflinching.  His is not an unexamined life.

Most writing about surfing has been about its high achievers. Like the majority of surfers, Finnegan was never part of that world so his experiences resonate in a way that those of a professional surfer never could. He also avoids the trap, implicit in so much writing about surfing, of taking for granted the fact that surfing is superior to any other activity ever indulged in by humankind. His passion for, and commitment to, surfing vary but even at their peak there remains that degree of ambivalence so necessary to a true understanding. To see anything in absolute terms is to miss some essential part of it. In this case, that our attraction to surfing is about each of us as individuals far more than it is about surfing itself.

His perspective is also different to most other surf writers because surfing has not been the main business or achievement of his life. He is a man of much greater substance than that. One who has taught in a black high school in South Africa during apartheid and reported from war zones. One who, by his own admission, was delayed in writing the book by the fear that it was too trivial a subject and was distracting him from more important projects. This gives him the kind of perspective on surfing so often missing in other works; that for all its capacity to intrigue and entertain us, it is, in the end, the icing, not the cake.

The ultimate test of anyone writing about surfing though is to write a decent wave. In terms of literary hazard this is up there with writing about sex. Both activities are so intensely physical that their translation into words will always be fraught with difficulty. Cliche and absurdity are the most obvious risks but getting the physical details right is absolutely critical. Finnegan's waves, both those he rode himself and those he saw ridden, are immaculate. He is the Kelly Slater of the written wave! He will probably never write about surfing again and yet will, for a long time, remain the most important, and hopefully the most influential, writer on surfing. //blindboy

Click to read 'The Lucky Country', an exclusive extract from Barbarian Days.

Comments

finback's picture
finback's picture
finback Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 3:40pm

Just finished reading MP Untold and decided to view again his DVD "Searching for Michael Peterson" Both must reads and viewing by surfers from all generations. After the post a few days ago "The Lucky Country" and listening to the radio link with Phill Adams interviewing William Finnegan I purchased Barbarian Days today.

If your dad is into surfing do him a favour and buy him either MP Untold or Barbarian Days as a Fathers day gift instead of soap on a rope !

Im hoping a few other surfers decide to scribe their surfing stories / adventures. Eg Peter McCabe, Greg Webber, Baddy Treloar

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 3:47pm

Great review BB

OHV500's picture
OHV500's picture
OHV500 Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 5:14pm

Well written review ;) Hope I get a copy for fathers day.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 5:50pm

Excellent review BB. I'll definitely have to get a copy or let my brother buy it and borrow his;)

A couple of others whose lives would make interesting reading, Tom Curren, Maurice Cole, Peter Troy, Tony Eltherington, Dane Kealoha, Terry Fitz to name a few.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 Wednesday, 2 Sep 2015 at 6:09pm

BB, I particularly like this bit: "Most writing about surfing has been about its high achievers. Like the majority of surfers, Finnegan was never part of that world so his experiences resonate in a way that those of a professional surfer never could."

and this: "His perspective is also different to most other surf writers because surfing has not been the main business or achievement of his life. "

I think that is what makes the book so refreshing, that it wasn't written by a surf writer/journalist who by definition has a skewed perspective of surfing compared to the average rec surfer.

bish's picture
bish's picture
bish Thursday, 3 Sep 2015 at 10:12pm

I've recently just finished the audio book, a great listen, highly recommended! Narrated by the author too which gave it an amazing authenticity

Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt Saturday, 5 Sep 2015 at 7:57am

Good review, BB. As unlikely as it seems, we may have developed a psychic connection over the years! The last paragraph of my review for Fairfax Media draws exactly the same conclusions. (Although I thought there were a few too many waves.) I'm appearing with Finnegan "in conversation" at the Ubud Writers Festival next month. Looking forward to it.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Saturday, 19 Sep 2015 at 9:53am

I just read your review and it's bizarre how we both went to exactly the same ideas. For those who are interested it is easy to find on the app but hidden in the depths of SMH's abominable web site. Here!

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/barbarian-days-review-william-...

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Saturday, 5 Sep 2015 at 11:28am

When did that appear Phil? I must have missed it. Did you hear the podcast interview on Longform? Enjoy Ubud!

Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt Sunday, 6 Sep 2015 at 11:54am

It hasn't yet. Probably next Saturday's SMH/Age. Yes, mate, I listened to the Philip Adams interview. Good to see he has such a high opinion of the Australian surf writing genre!

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Sunday, 6 Sep 2015 at 12:20pm

No this one
http://longform.org/posts?page=7

I haven't listened to the Phillip Adams one yet.

tonybarber's picture
tonybarber's picture
tonybarber Saturday, 19 Sep 2015 at 11:23am

Well written review - look forward to the book. Must say that the 'surf culture' is not seen in most other human activities. Then to transcribe it is not easy.