Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

I have come late to Finnegan’s celebrated book, ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’. It sat, unread, by my beside for months, and I was never sure what my hesitation was. Perhaps the singularly glowing reviews in the New York Review of Book, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal following his awarding of a Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography. A Pulitzer! For a book about surfing! Or perhaps it was the claim (I can’t remember where), that this book would change the surf writing genre. Books about surfing's past are a growing genre of non-fiction. As men who started surfing in the 50s, 60s and 70s head into their sunset years, the scramble to claim their place in the surfing past appears to have come upon them suddenly and absolutely. This genre has a big market. Thousands of surfers - like them, who knew them, or who admired them – love reading these stories to reflect on their own surfing lives and histories, while the current affinity for the apparent “golden era of surfing” among younger surfers, who seem to think the past was crowd free and idyllic, have a similar hunger. And I too, not fitting easily into either of these categories, love reading about past days of surfing. Memoir is a favourite genre of mine, so books about people's surfing lives always make it onto my radar. And so, surf writing is a genre with legs – quite an achievement, I think we can all agree.

Finnegan’s book, ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’, can easily be placed in this category. A memoir of his days in the waves, Finnegan’s book traces his life surfing from (and this is a non-exhaustive list) Hawai’i to California, island-hopping across the Pacific, to Australia and South Africa, and through parts of Europe and his current home, in New York. The books travels to every significant shortboarding break you can imagine, and Finnegan offers an incredibly detailed and intimate catalogue of the coastlines, beaches, waves, currents, water and light at these breaks. This is a book about a man who loves surfing. Finnegan says this is a book about the ocean, ‘about that myth-encrusted place” (432), but I disagree. The ocean is deep, vast, terrifying, unknowable, filled with secrets and creatures and death. This is not a book about anything beyond the coastal surface in which ocean energy explodes onto the rocks and sand and coral. This is a book about a love of waves, and the various waves he has ridden.

Loving waves is an easy way in for surfers - I love waves too! - but Finnegan is careful in his crafting to ensure the book welcomes non-surfers too. It would be hard for me to know if he succeeded (surfing’s exclusionary tendencies are hard to spot from inside the fence), but a non-surfing friend once, very briefly, talked about the book to me, saying how amazing she found the descriptions, and how much she enjoyed the whole story. Finnegan himself has discussed the care he took to make sure the book eased non-surfers in so they could understand what waves are, how they are ridden, why surfers love them, and to catch a glimpse of what it’s like to surf them. Even for me, this easing in was important. My own surfing life, while pushing at my own boundaries, does not reach waves of the size and consequence that Finnegan routinely seeks out. I've never understood thrill seeking at the expense of physical safety and health. I still don't understand the motivation, but having finished 'Barbarian Days', I understand something more of what the experience might be like. The depth to which the white-water can reach, the power with which the lip can hit, the speed of the waves, the hyper-awareness of the proximity to rocks, currents, sets and the shore. Somewhat surprisingly, - surprisingly in that I'm surprised – Finnegan doesn't reflect on his interest in chasing such waves and experiences until the very last chapter of the book. His yearning to follow a life-long boy's-own-adventure goes without pause until his advancing age forces the questions. Questions, and I do not mind this, I cannot remember him answering.

The topic of waves is organised chronologically and geographically, with time and place intertwined; there is not 1960s without California and Oahu, no 1970s without Maui, the South Pacific and Australia. Clearly, this organisation made sense, personally – we are a product of the times and places we inhabit – but it also makes sense historically, in that Finnegan’s travels are in sync with developments in surfing. From the perfection of southern Californian peelers in the hot-dogging days, to Makaha’s place in the single-fin canon and onto Tavarua and Kirra and J-Bay and San Francisco as fins grew in number while boards shrank in size. The kinds of waves Finnegan sought out changed, not only with his own personal development and ageing, but also with the surfing times. These historical links to time and place shaped more than the book’s narrative structure. They shaped my own experience of the book and Finnegan’s stories. In the end, these flows could be used as a map of my own reading pleasures and frustrations, which were myriad, and which were linked to what I know of surfing history. Just as Finnegan did, I couldn’t help but tie his journeys and ideas and behaviours and decisions in with my own joys and frustrations of what I know of the surfing past, and thus, now, his place in it. Not his place in surfing as a sport, because his book suggests very little interest in contests and athlete-surfers and surf industry and media (well, beyond some dabblings with ‘Tracks’). Instead his claims are in relation to various waves that pushed surfing cultural developments and imaginations. While, perhaps, it wasn’t his intention, Finnegan’s book inserts him into surfing history by describing his own “discoveries” or near discoveries in Fiji, and his presence at the shortboard surfing forefront in Kirra, J-Bay, and Madeira. It’s a place-name-dropping extravaganza of an 'I was there before...' variety.

The other history Finnegan’s own sits alongside, is that of surfing’s colonising shadow. As Finnegan and his companion make their way across (especially) the South Pacific, they foreshadow the tourism and leisure-seeking to come. While he remains aware of it in hindsight, and suggests they were aware of it at the time, their travels are not an exchange of experiences and cultures (and sex) the way he’d hoped. Instead, they read as naïve and selfish and self-indulgent. His felt relationships to places come too easily to him, and he adopts an attitude of comfort and ease in a way that is only available to some. Perhaps this ease is a product of storytelling about the past, but by the time Finnegan took us to Fiji, I was annoyed and bored. Finnegan’s stories were all about the boys, with girls and women relegated to often-nameless support roles as someone else’s sister or girlfriend or mother. Two-dimensional women who didn’t surf and didn’t contribute to surfing. Other than his own significant romantic loves, and his mother and sister, in this book women are barely apparent and have little impact on men’s surfing lives. For me, this is a frustrating consistency with surfing history as it’s already told: women didn’t surf, girlfriends could be left behind or come along if it didn’t stop a guy from having a space on the ride. I’m certainly not suggesting that Finnegan didn’t and doesn’t love and respect the women in his life, but with those few exceptions, his book relegates women to the same role that so many other surf histories do as well. His wife Caroline, clearly provides moments of reflection for Finnegan, when she mocks his surfing lingo, and later on when he realises that she has never asked him not to take off on his crazy wave-riding pursuits. Injured, shocked and lying in a bath recovering after a particularly hairy brush with disaster while his wife takes care of him, it dawns on Finnegan that she has had to endure these things too, and that so many of his surfing stories are hers (and his previous loves’) to own as well. This realisation is strong and I’d say it impacted the inclusion of his girlfriends in the ways they appeared. But for Finnegan, surfing itself has a pronoun, and that pronoun is male.

My irritation with these two aspects of this period of the book that covers Maui, the South Pacific and Australia (and on into South Africa) – the exclusion of women from surfing, and the celebration of Western sufers' “discoveries” of waves – was the root of my boredom. I put the book aside, declared it to myself as overwritten and more-of-the-same. I spoke to some (male) friends about it, one of whom professed the same boredom with the familiar narrative, and I thought about it all a lot more.

As I dwelt on my frustration, my own self-reflection kicked in generating uncertainty in my reactions, and I questioned whether this was a fair way to approach the book. I remembered that writing hard, and that writing books must be even harder. I remembered that my goal with reviewing is always to find the core of the book, of what the author was trying to do, separate from my own historical and cultural relationships. I remembered that books are best read in a spirit of generosity, in which the book is allowed to play out to its conclusion. I remembered that this is how I would want people to approach my own work. And so, after a couple of weeks of mild fuming, I picked it back up. I felt like a satirical piece in 'The Onion', it really is hard to ignore relentless exclusion of women from so many surf histories and memoirs, no matter how celebrated the writing is. Reading and reviews are never objective, but the goal, I suppose, is to weave a thread between the various cloths - the author's purpose, the book itself, and my own relationships to and knowledge of surfing.

It took a little time to find my way back in, but once I shifted my approach to reading it opened back up and I found myself enjoying it (once we got into South Africa and beyond). It was back to the best of the book, which is not the teenaged and twenty-something-year-old claims or discovery of waves and Self, but the early years of Finnegan’s childhood, and the later years once he’s moved to New York. In these sections, he seems most reconciled with his own ever-shifting relationships to surfing, which becomes a part of his life only, rather than the romanticised demon on his shoulder, driving him to his South Pacific adventure. Even I know this demonic little voice – the voice that is the worst of me as a surfer, the voice that drives and dominates until waves are all that matters. That voice that means we’re never free. This demon seems to re-emerge near the end of Finnegan’s story, but his self-reflection is such that it’s instructive more than anything else.

The book is best when the relationships drive the narrative as much as the waves do. That is an odd summation to make about a book that is subtitled, ‘A Surfing Life’, but as well as the waves, it’s the relationships that are key throughout. For Finnegan, like for me, surfing is nothing without the folk we do it with. The solo ideal so often courted in surf media does not resonate with me – I can count the number of times I’ve surfed alone and really enjoyed it. I loved how relationships were always at the heart of Finnegan’s surfing life, never more so in those favourite sections of mine – the beginning and the end. The sections that frustrated me were the sections where the hunt for waves was shared, but not really framed by his friends and surfing community. That’s not to say relationships weren’t as important, it’s just that they weren’t at the heart of his motivations and his way of making sense of what surfing is and can be. The chapter on San Francisco, so famous as a series in the New Yorker in the 1990s, was a turning point in this, and perhaps in Finnegan’s self-awareness of the impact of his surfing buddies.

This is a beautiful and compelling book written by someone who’s spent a lifetime on their craft. The writing is largely clear and simple, descriptions easy to access and imagine, a poetic tone is woven through yet hyperbole is saved for appropriate moments, while sentences, paragraphs and chapters maintain rhythm and pace that reflect their subject. I could always see how good he is at what he does, but my favour with the writing flowed with the times and places he visited, and the matching set of my own pleasures and pains. When I re-entered the book after a break, I got the sense that the writing styles shifted to reflect his development as a person. His writing about the South Pacific admitted but skirted attitudes and behaviours that clearly still cause self-consciousness despite their idyllic nature – him and Bryan both – while in describing his later years in Madeira, his words manage to confidently embrace the contradictions of his own contributions and participation in the changes there. Finnegan cannot point the finger at anyone and blame them for the way things have gone. His book is bountiful evidence of his own participation in these changes and challenges, no matter how much he wishes they weren’t.

With my own favourite books about surfing being those by Fiona Capp, Robert Drewe and Brett d’Arcy – albeit it the last two are about bodysurfing – this book did not feel as though it is a genre changer for me. Like these books, ‘Barbarian Days’ is aimed at a literary rather than surfing audience, so it opens up the experience of catching waves, of being in waves, to non-surfing readers, helping them imagine what surfing is like and why it might become so all-consuming. When we speak about surfing to surfers too much, everything gets reduced to waves in a way that ignores the myriad other things that make surfing all that it is – people, places, cultures, knowledge, time, family, romance, love. Without all of that, surfing is nothing, and it is this, more than anything else, that ‘Barbarian Days’ makes clear.


  1. I like your view on this.
    I got this book as a gift before I knew it was so celebrated. I read it and I felt bored but also offended somehow by the arrogance with which the author look a the others. I'll never forget the sentence "if you didn't learn surfing by 14 years of age, you'll never learn" or something like that. I still wonder what the hell does that mean. I enjoyed it, and I hate it.

  2. That line rings in my ears too, Fed! It's so arrogant to locate surfing success and pleasure in terms of elite skill levels. Despite a childhood growing up at the beach, I didn't start til my mid-20s. I know I'll never be as skilled and confident as my friends who've surfed since they were small and who win contests and stand-out in lineups, but often I can access pleasures in the surf that they can't. I get frustrated at myself, sure, but I don't feel the same depth of frustration at kook-ing a wave or declining in ability. I'm happy with things in a different way than people who expect so much more from their abilities.

    I'm not sure what Finnegan meant either, but it was a comment born of his own sense of self and ability than a reflection on all the different things that surfing is and can be.

  3. a line that somebody once said - "success is a journey not a destination". Prob won't read the book. We travel individual journeys.


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