Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
by William Finnegan
Published July, 2015
It was cold and grey when we arrived in Santa Cruz. The lesson started on cliffs overlooking Cowells Beach, a typical beginners spot with an easy longboard wave. The instructor had us all lie down on our boards. He went over vocabulary, pointing to the rails, the deck, and so on. We talked paddling. Most important was the placement of one’s body on the board. Too far back and you stall out. Too far forward and the nose submerges as the wave takes shape. You slide down into the white water. ‘You come out all eggy.’
Online images for the Richard Schmidt Surf School showed instructors holding children up on their boards using harnesses. They surfed alongside, stabilizing the child whose feet appeared firmly planted. There were no harnesses on our outing. We paddled out, which took about five minutes and left me exhausted. We had been told that to catch a wave you have to build up speed by paddling toward the shore as it approaches. When you see video of surfers, it’s typically from the moment they catch the wave. Omitted is the effort to catch it. True, skilled surfers know how to drop in with a quick burst of energy. But when you’re learning on a longboard, it’s all about paddling.
There was no way I was paddling fast enough when I caught my first wave. And I didn’t stand up. I stayed on my knees, but I lifted my arms. I shouted to my friend Ian, who was about ten feet away on the same wave, ‘It ain’t pretty, but it’s surfing!’ It wasn’t, actually, since I wasn’t standing on the board. And I quickly realized it wasn’t a very cool thing to say. But I was stoked.
As I paddled back to the spot where our group was congregated, I saw the instructor at work. He’d paddle alongside a student as the wave approached. Then, when it was about five feet away, he’d ease up and as the face of the wave made contact with the student’s board, he’d grab it at the tail and give it a strong push. I’ve since learned that this is the main duty of the surf instructor (apart from preventing drownings). Surely there are some who catch a wave their first time out. But most don’t. They require the push in order to achieve stoke. That stoke then carries them on to the next weekend when they return to Santa Cruz and rent boards on their own. The session amounts to a lot of paddling and no surfing. Or at least for me it did. Ian caught a few waves. I watched in envy. Over the next few months I built up strength and finally managed to catch waves, and even bought a board of my own. Standing remained a problem. Ian nicknamed me the Elephant for the shape my body took over the course of my struggle. With the extremities of all four limbs on the board, my back would arch before my arms would then lift skyward and I’d trumpet as I fell into the water, time and again.
In Barbarian Days, William Finnegan says you have to start surfing before you’re fourteen if you want any chance of being good at it. This jibes with what the guy who rented us our boards in Santa Cruz told us. You need to surf for a thousand hours before you can actually surf. It sounds impossible, but it’s obviously doable. If you paddle out more or less everyday for three years you’re well on your way. This is easier to do if you live near a surf break. When I took my first lesson, I was a graduate student in Berkeley, one hundred miles from Santa Cruz. This meant I had lots of time and few obligations. Libraries don’t care if you show up for work, and academic departments notoriously don’t care if you finish your degree. I live in Canberra now, one hundred miles from the ocean in a country surrounded by it. I also have a wife and a daughter and a job at a university, where my research output is hounded by accountability measures. The temptation is to describe these factors as so many obligations, but they’re not what keep me from surfing. What is lacking is commitment. Life is simply too distracting to make this particular obligation worth pursuing. And it’s not 2002 anymore. Last month I paddled out in Margaret River in Western Australia. The waves were perfectly shaped. I was on an especially buoyant foam top board. There was nothing to be afraid of. But my muscles managed to lift me to my feet and keep me there only once in a two-hour session. Finnegan speaks of turning forty as a turning point in his surfing career, when it became more difficult to pop up. It looks like for me this won’t be so much a turning point as a dead end.
The wonder I felt reading Finnegan’s memoir of a surfing life is not unlike that that would overtake me years ago as I sat in the water and watched Ian glide across my field of vision, spray at his back, the Santa Cruz mountains in the background. Surfing is, like many arts, one that looks effortless when executed well. Finnegan suggests that the glory of surfing is tied to the vanity of the activity itself. Surfing is vain in the sense that it accomplishes nothing, but vain too in its element of performance. Absorptive and theatrical in equal measure, surfing requires intense focus alongside the presumption of a phantom spectator who will enjoy witnessing your sweet moves. It’s essential to the idea of sport or play that their feats of grace serve no real end but themselves, so it’s not immediately evident what makes surfing unique in this regard. The memoir gives the answer. In its danger, its peculiar combination of repetition and singularity, surfing takes the form of a compulsion, a means of escape that takes you nowhere, even as, in Finnegan’s case at least, it takes you everywhere. Finnegan sees the world. Women come and go. Family fades into the background. He hangs with well-paid laborers in Queensland, fishermen in Bali, black students in South Africa, white professionals in San Francisco. But the relationships are incidental to the surfing. Even the most central relationships in the book, to men who play the roles of friends and rivals in writing and surfing, amount to digressions from a life story that takes place alone, in the water.
After chapters that alternate between his years growing up in California and Hawaii comes an account of Finnegan’s time in Australia – the ‘Lucky Country’. The early passages narrate his efforts to find paid work and his relationship with his travel partner Bryan Di Salvatore. As the surf picks up the people disappear and natural forces become the subject. His report of Kirra on Boxing Day, when a massive swell hit, is exemplary:
It was overcast and glary that first morning, the ocean surface gray and brown and blinding silver. The sets looked smaller than they were, seeming to drift almost aimlessly onto the bar outside the jetty, then suddenly standing up taller and thicker than they should have, hiccupping, and finally unloading in a ferocious series of connectable sections, some of the waves going square with power—the lip threw out that far when it broke.
Hiccups and lips give way to machine metaphors. ‘Concussion wavelets’ threaten to mar cleaner waves that ‘gathered so much force as they began to detonate across the main bar’ they left you struggling to ‘stay over your board through an ungodly acceleration.’ All this despite Kirra’s not being ‘a mechanical wave.’
Barbarian Days is positively beguiling as a prose effort. It’s a testament to the power of language to translate experience not so much into images as ideas, representations that are intelligible despite the fact that nothing in the experience of surfing is commensurate with words. When Finnegan contrasts Kirra to Honolua Bay as ‘a far more compact, ropier wave,’ we may have no image of what he’s talking about, yet we somehow know what he means. The words carry us along. The earlier chapters include parentheticals to clarify technical terms related to the act of surfing itself. Having taken a surf lesson almost fifteen years ago, I of course recognize this as a necessary concession to outsiders. We’re soon able to orient ourselves among jetties, bars, sections, and sets. When Finnegan’s descriptions of surfing take off, they’re often overwhelming. Some of the words are recognizable, but they’re arranged in a dialect that figures something you’ve never seen. ‘I surfed alone for an hour, catching mushburgers outside, skiing over the ledge, and then red-lining it through the barrel section on my sturdy Owl.’ Out of context this might seem like randomly generated spam content. In Barbarian Days the effect of such alternately mannish and boyish passages is poetic.
Readers of Finnegan’s work in the New Yorker—also treated as incidental to his surfing life—know of his talent as a writer, and his commitment to rendering the strange familiar so as to leave us ultimately with a sense of how strange familiarity can feel. His piece on the coal magnate Gina Rinehart shows that neoliberalism in Australia works as it does everywhere else, except for being uniquely Australian in this case. As his books on apartheid in South Africa and economic inequality in rural America make clear, he’s an impassioned advocate for victims of social injustice. The expectation in reading Barbarian Days is that one will learn the roots of this passion, that we will see its organic emergence from the world travel treated in its pages. But this passion seems incidental too. The memoir is, after all, of a surfing life.
And herein lies the book’s most enchanting aspect. Figurative language abounds—I defy anyone to find better descriptions of surfing, whatever the criteria might be, and regardless of whether you’ve surfed or tried to. But the book as a whole is not a metaphor; it is astonishingly literal. We expect a child of the 1950s to take us through the disappointments of the counterculture. We expect a memoir dedicated to the author’s teenage daughter to take us through the challenges of marriage and the miracle of fatherhood. The wife and kid are in the book, but they are never its subject, much less its object.
The wonder of Barbarian Days is to provide us with a literary experience that is not a stand in for other experiences, that is not an allegory of effort and victory and disappointment and loss that memoir culture has conditioned us to expect. Experiences do not reveal the sense of a life; they comprise it. The envy that one feels for Finnegan is not a matter of his talent or his life lived. It is the envy one has for someone for whom the experience itself is enough. It doesn’t have to mean anything, and to make it mean anything would be to make it something other than it is. Finnegan signals this aspect of the book with an epigraph from Edward St Aubyn, its one real ornamental feature: ‘He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was a splash of color on the page.’ The entire book, including photos, is in black and white, but the synaesthetic gesture is to the point. What it introduces is an indelible portrait of autonomy.
The book is literal in its refusal to allegorize surfing. Nevertheless a symmetry emerges between Finnegan’s most fundamental passions: surfing and writing. When Finnegan’s not surfing or doing paid work, he’s writing. You wonder how he carried so many notebooks around the world. And you note that both writing and surfing are solitary practices marked by a public tenor. When you finish reading Barbarian Days you have the strong sense that it was not written with you in mind. But then who or what is the book for? Why was it written? Finnegan reportedly expressed misgivings over the years about writing a book devoted to such a frivolous activity, however essential it may appear to his biography. But it’s possible the devotion and the frivolity are related in some intimate, perhaps inextricable way. Literature and surfing both seem to require an earnest, passionate commitment to indifference. The paradox of such activities is that the intensity of devotion seems directly proportional to the degree of frivolity one permits oneself to indulge.
All of this creates problems for any attempt to write about Finnegan’s book, to review the work or to criticize it. The platitude ‘you just have to read it’ seems no less pertinent than the cliché dear to the surfer (and lousy storytellers): you just had to be there. But such is the derivative nature of criticism, which is kin to scholarship in this regard. Scholarship produces works that take other works for their subjects. Reading a book, viewing a work, these are activities not unlike watching a surfer – a temporally bound experience, marked by anticipation and surprise. And on some level marked by envy. Many have the desire for self-sufficiency, a desire that persists in oddly contorted ways in a life otherwise made full by the support and joy of loving relationships. I’ve desired to surf for many years and am yet to succeed at it. Barbarian Days is an object lesson in the difference between desire and determination, between a form of yearning that gets bound up with promises and excuses and a form of living that exalts in moments that are incomparable, impervious to justification.