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William Finnegan: Wave Rider



By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Surf fiction doesn’t immediately conjure up thoughts of great literature. Of course, there is some good writing about the beautiful addiction to riding waves and the allure of the ocean’s ebb and flow. Allan Weisbecker’s “In Search of Captain Zero” and his tales of Central American adventures rival anything Hunter S. Thompson ever wrote. Then there is Kem Nunn’s classic “Tapping the Source,” which captured the seedy underbelly of Huntington Beach surf culture in the ‘80s and inspired the movie “Point Break.” One of Australia’s most celebrated writers, Tim Winton, also penned a classic coming-of-age surf story, “Breathe,” almost a decade ago.  

As far as nonfiction about surfing, one writer stands head and shoulders above the rest. Sure, Mark Twain and Jack London both wrote about surfing Hawaii’s Waikiki in the early 1900s, but their memoirs don’t hold a candle to what William Finnegan accomplished with “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” winner of a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

In 1992, Finnegan, a longtime war correspondent, published a two-part article in The New Yorker called “Playing Doc’s Games” which was instantly recognized for its eloquent authenticity, among both surf bums and the literati. Some 25 years later, he writes with even greater precision and critical distance from the overly-mythologized sport. 

For Finnegan, chasing waves is in one sense a noble, ascetic practice which rejects conventional notions of achievement and questions standard obligations of duty. At other times, he feels more conflicted: “Being rich white American kids in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, turned our backs on—well, it would simply never be O.K.”

Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days” recounts growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s in southern California and Hawaii catching waves and getting into fistfights. As he grows up, becomes a journalist, has a family and explores far-flung locales, his love for surfing outlasts the adolescent-rebellion phase, but his innocent passion for the activity doesn’t blind him to the problematic aspects of his pursuits.

Here is a book best read on a beach. It will be awhile before anyone writes about the mysterious cult of surfers with such evocative simplicity and clear-headed reflection. Whether Finnegan is detailing the friendships he has made riding big waves, his close-calls with drowning, or his travels around the globe searching for the perfect break, “Barbarian Days” lays the gifts of Poseidon bare for all to see.

Doug Hare is the distribution director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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