Review: Barbarian Days – A Surfing Life
Being out in big surf is dreamlike. Terror and ecstasy ebb and flow around the edges of things, each threatening to overwhelm the dreamer.”
William Finnegan won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for this book in 2015. And there’s no getting away from it, he does know how to use words. But I have to say, 499 pages on surfing for a non-surfer, that is, someone who has never even held a surfboard (me!) is very, very long indeed, no matter how well written. I struggled to finish it. But now here it sits on my desk – complete!
However, taking that into account, Finnegan takes you on a bit of a world trip and I am a traveller if not an intrepid wave rider. In fact, he visits many of the places I have also been (but about twenty years before I did), which is quite fascinating. Indonesia, for instance. Darwin. San Francisco. New York. And he made me want to pack my bags for Madeira (but not to surf, funnily enough).
While I admit I had to skim some very explicit and drawn-out descriptions of surfing spots, Finnegan’s appreciation for the wiles of water rushing in from the deeper ocean was totally intriguing. Through his eyes, one begins to see the sea in a completely different way. As something beguiling. Dangerous. Peaceful. Addictive. Soothing. Mysterious.
Furthermore, the way he traces his own development from a young boy in Hawaii to a grown man with his own daughter is both honest and perceptive. He can be self-critical, but equally critical of some of the other people in the book whose paths cross with his. The person who stands out most is his friend Bryan who he travelled with in his younger years.
Finnegan also shows the development of surfing from a more “outlier”, rebellious activity, to something drabber and mainstream (he mentions, with tongue in cheek, people who “learn” to surf on holiday).
Surfing the Finnegan way definitely seems more of a calling than a sport and though I found the book a challenge, I learnt a whole new way of thinking.
And that can never be a bad thing, can it?