Book Look: Barbarian Days A Surfing Life

Barbarian Days A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

If you’ve never heard of William Finnegan, neither had I, but he’s written a great book about his life, and surfing, which are tightly entangled in this coming-of-age-and-way-beyond story.
I’m not the only one who thought it was a great read. The big-cheese literary what-nots awarded it the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2016.
A few things that hooked me right off the bat:
  • Nostalgic 1960s Woodland Hills, California (I live nearby.)
  • Hawaii (A hot item on my bucket list.)
  • Surfing (You live in Southern California long enough; you eventually surf. Or wish you could.)
So, right there, he’s got me with a three-step-takedown.
Typically, an autobiography is enjoyable since you’re reading about a famous person you like, getting all the historical details that you never knew.
But our man Finnegan, although a well-respected writer for The New Yorker magazine, doesn’t have a high public profile. Being a master wordsmith, helps the cause, of course. But kid Finnegan, back in the day especially, had an interesting life that makes the story quite compelling.  
In grade school during the mid 60's, he found himself bouncing back and forth between upper-middle-class Woodland Hills, and the gritty east side of Diamond Head on the island of Oahu.
"I had never thought of myself as a sheltered child. Still, Kaimuki Intermediate School was a shock. I was in the eighth grade, and most of my new schoolmates were 'drug addicts, glue sniffers, and hoods' - or so I wrote to a friend back in Los Angeles".
His dad, a television producer for Hawaiian themed shows (yes, including 'Hawaii Five-0') took the family out to the islands for each filming season.
A semester here, then there, back and forth. He had both a privileged life in Southern California as well as a tough go of it on Oahu. The native Hawaiian kids do not like white kids from the mainland.
"My orientation program at school included a series of fistfights, some formally scheduled."
"I don't know what my parents thought. Cuts and bruises, even black eyes, could be explained. Football, surfing, something. My hunch, which seems right in retrospect, was that they couldn't help, so I told them nothing."
Surfing was the common thread in both lives. In California it was just something to do. In Hawaii it was a way to fit in and perhaps end the punishment. 
But surfing the waves off Diamond Head was different from the Ventura pier. The Hawaiian swell is a whole new level. The wind patterns. The current. The paddling so far out to have any chance to get in the zone. The locals-only crowd.
But our kid Finnegan was patient and tough. 
"Discreetly, I studied the surfing of some of the regulars at Cliffs - the ones who seemed to read the wave best, who found the speed pockets and wheeled their boards so neatly through their turns. My first impressions where confirmed: I had never seen such smoothness."


Things began to change. Back on the mainland there was yardwork, babysitting, and church on Sunday, which left precious little time for surfing.
Daydreams of the waves at Diamond Head began to take hold. Our young man Finnegan began to yearn for the island despite the fights and school yard scraps.
Back there, he'd gotten in with a few surf buddies, and with the family's cottage rental, there was no yard work. Babysitting meant taking little brother surfing and Sunday service was routinely skipped.
Eventually what was a way to fit in, evolved into a lifestyle leading to an obsession. Then the bug really hit. Surfing became a religion. 
Long letters to his friends back on the mainland exposed his talent for writing, noticed and spurred on by his dad.
Tag along with Bill and his comrades as they cross the globe chasing un-surfed waves, living on yachts, in huts, and dingy rentals all while writing to help sustain the surfing life.
You'll be treated to moments alongside while riding some of the most breathtaking waves in some of the most remote coves and breaks yet to be surfed.   
"Approaching the waves were like optical illusions. You could look straight through them, at the sky and sea and sea bottom behind them. And when I caught one and stood up, it disappeared. I was flying down the line but all I could see was brilliant reef streaming under my feet. It was like surfing on air."
As you could guess, eventually he begins to see how settling down could be a nice option. And how maybe he should write a little more than surf.
Things turned out nicely for our man Finnegan. He still surfs, but is also a husband, a father and rather talented writer at The New Yorker magazine.
After reading his book, a subscription isn't sounding like such a bad idea.
 Check out his book on Amazon:
Or his website:
Check out his articles in The New Yorker Magazine:

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