cover image Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

William Finnegan. Penguin Press, $27.95 (450p) ISBN 978-1-59420-347-3

In this panoramic and fascinating memoir, long-time New Yorker staff writer Finnegan pays tribute to the ancient art of surfing. Arriving on Oahu from California at 13, in the mid-1960s, Finnegan discovered that Hawaiian public school students weren’t particularly welcoming to haoles; surfing brought him acceptance and contentment, and would remain central to his life for the next half century. In the late 1970s, he set out in pursuit of a perfect wave, and spent five years circumnavigating the globe with long stops in Polynesia, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Africa. The social inequality he witnessed led him to journalism, but after his return to the U.S. and fatherhood, the waves still beckoned, even if that meant enduring a January swell off Long Island. Throughout this lengthy work, Finnegan never loses sight of the marginalized, such as the black students he taught in apartheid South Africa. Yet the core of the book is a surfing chronicle, and Finnegan possesses impeccable short-board bona fides. As a middle-aged, professionally successful man, he grapples with his aging body and the contradictions of surfing’s commodification, at one point returning as a high-end tourist to a wave he pioneered as a penniless kid. Surfing (mostly) remains a man’s world, and Finnegan’s attempts to mention the women he loved seem like afterthoughts. Nevertheless, he has written a revealing and magisterial account of a beautiful addiction. (July)