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Along for the Ride

Journalist William Finnegan contemplates a life-long surf obsession in Barbarian Days.

There is an adage repeated among adults who have both devoted their lives to, and have been swept away by, surfing “It’s like the mob,” they say, conspiratorially. “If you work at it, you can get in…but you can never get out.”

This hokey yet suspiciously accurate riff is complicated by an equally long-lived bumper sticker that reads, “God created surfing to keep the truly gifted from ruling the world.”

We love our tropes. These two, taken together, might move one to assume that surfers are both highly intelligent and trapped in their own foamy, glistening, repetitive little worlds. Good people made dumb by too much of a good thing. It’s a stereotype the surf crowd has wrestled with, but never beaten. We suspect this is the case, partly, because it’s true.

This summer will see the publication of award-winning magazine journalist and New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan’s tome to his years chasing waves—Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Rather than a limiting factor, in viewing his memoirs through the lens of a life-long passion, Finnegan becomes expansive. He explores intimate corners—family dynamics, childhood exploits, adult friendships, relationships, aspirations—while also probing, complicating and negating the sport’s axioms: that it was always better yesterday, that paradise is a place, etc. As an established political reporter, Finnegan once worried that outing himself as a surfer would lessen the respect he’d built among colleagues and interview subjects, political wonks and thought leaders among them. Yet, in Barbarian Days, he’s dropping acid and surfing Honolua Bay. His leftist ideals ride on his shoulders like epaulets. He ditches a girlfriend to surf the Black Sea. He contemplates financial instrument scams in Southeast Asia. He’s broke, driven, obsessed—and that stretch lasted a very long time.

In Barbarian Days, however, surfing is many things—identity, catalyst, anchor—and his aspirations as a writer are both sustained and compromised by his devotion to it.

Importantly, eventually, Finnegan did break free from—or at least came to a negotiated settlement with—his surfing entanglement. And he rose to the highest levels of American letters. His in-depth reporting was filed from Somalia, Mozambique, Sudan, Madagascar, South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru, among others. In conversation, he described much of this reporting as “grim,” equally so here in America, where Finnegan profiled skinheads in Southern California’s Antelope Valley, a Texas town struck by a crack epidemic, and a teenage drug dealer in post-industrial Connecticut. He said that on tough assignments near wave-drenched coasts, surfing came as balm to the bruising subjects he meant to capture. When embedded with SoCal’s skinhead —an assignment so penetrating that his wife began to notice his language favoring their jargon, their thinking, their world view—he would escape to slide Malibu. Reporting in El Salvador following a period when other journalists had been killed on the job, Finnegan slipped away to the reeling right point La Libertad. In those instances, he said, “surfing was an antidote to the dark things.”

In Barbarian Days, however, surfing is many things—identity, catalyst, anchor—and his aspirations as a writer are both sustained and compromised by his devotion to it.

Among the tribe, Finnegan is most well-known for penning “Playing Doc’s Games,” a two-part New Yorker article published in 1992. It was the most prominent, articulate, and real piece on surfing to make a mainstream publication, and it is considered among the best of surf writing. Set at the initial stages of his reporting career, and during a waylay in 1980s San Francisco, Finnegan drifted into the gravitational pull of Ocean Beach and of Dr. Mark Renneker: physician, author, and charismatic big-wave rider. Under the influence of Doc’s prescriptive on life and surfing, Finnegan illustrated the insipient big-wave scene at San Francisco’s grueling, cold, and super-charged Ocean Beach, and an ethos that ricochets around our collective subconscious to this day. The author thought, on multiple occasions, that he was going to drown in San Francisco. “Playing Doc’s Games” took Finnegan seven years to write.

Finnegan’s surf obsession kindled in 1966, when the white, baby- faced Californian was tossed into the post-colonial mix of Hawaii’s public schools—at the time, a purgatorial institution that traded in low expectations. His producer father had moved the family to the islands to take a job. But the parents had no conception of the kind of education their son would get: lessens afforded a weakling member of an unpopular minority. He couldn’t speak Pidgin, and couldn’t parse the Japanese from the Chinese from the Koreans. In woodshop, a big kid sat behind Finnegan, “bonking” his head with a two-by-four. Finnegan joined an odd-ball, middle-school gang called the “In Crowd.” It was led by a “hoarse-voiced,” “broken-toothed” boy named Mike. They were bad. Finnegan couldn’t seem to set an edge until he made his solitary way down to a collection of “moody” surf breaks in the shadow of Diamond Head. There, he met a string of locals who became his true peers. He’d already been surfing in California. But Hawaii was different. “Surfing wasn’t subcultural or imported or oppositional,” he wrote, “It felt deeply woven into the fabric of the place.” A spell seemed to overtake the eighth grader—the consequence of which plays out through the remainder of the book.

GALLERY:

In the following years, the Finnegan family bounced back and forth between the islands and Los Angeles—a happenstance that allowed their eldest to experience pinnacle moments in the era of the Malibu chip, as well as the shortboard revolution—he, in fact, witnessed Bob McTavish deconstructing Rincon on one of his plastic machines. But the nostalgia present in almost any other descriptions of these locations and times is absent in Barbarian Days. Hawaii is not a paradise but a place of deep divides where kids “code switch” between cultures. Los Angeles was “the John Wayne Gacy of cities, smothering its children with a toxic beach towel of poisoned air, mindless growth, and bad values.”

There is a consistent interplay between the way things felt at the time, the discernable facts, and a dusting away of retrospection.This has to do with the way the book was constructed. Finnegan brought his journalistic skills to bear on his own memories. Old letters and journals were consulted, interrogated even. Finnegan placed calls to principal characters who recalled opposing facts. He looked at his notes again. “Did I change something here?” he asked.

And he doesn’t give in to “all-timers” disease. In fact, Finnegan said, even then, “we all thought we totally missed it.”

That “it” was a notion—uncrowded perfection, halcyon days. “We took this nostalgia with us wherever we went,” he wrote. It was a counterpoint to their “dystopian view of Southern California.” The problem was a familiar one: all of the known spots were already crowded. Paradise had already been mitigated. The only thing to do was to keep on the move.

Having become enchanted with Honolua Bay in the spring of 1971, Finnegan dropped out of UC Santa Cruz three months later, and dragged his teenaged girlfriend to Maui. He’d made no advance plans. They were homeless on arrival. But, “I knew a guy, I told her…I had met him on the street three months before.” Finnegan didn’t even remember the name of this contact. But after some searching, he located 22-year-old Bryan Di Salvatore, who, in an example of the best surfers have to offer, handed over the keys to a 1951 Ford. The couple could live in it. It could be their manger. The Ford was called “Rhino Chaser.”

“We took this nostalgia with us wherever we went,” he wrote. It was a counterpoint to their “dystopian view of Southern California.” The problem was a familiar one: all of the known spots were already crowded. Paradise had already been mitigated. The only thing to do was to keep on the move.

This meeting might be the most important in the book because Di Salvatore—a Yale grad who would also go on to become a New Yorker contributor—was already on his own private, traveling, literary road show. And in the coming years, Finnegan and Di Salvatore would team up to circumnavigate the globe, single fins under arm, a knapsack with nautical charts, literature on the mind. They’d drive across the Australian desert in an old Falcon, tossing “tinnies” into the back seat while red bull dust poured in through a busted window. In Samoa, a local family took the travelers in, fed them, and gave them a thatch hut. At night, songs were traded. Di Salvatore offered Hank Williams. A highlight of Barbarian Days comes in Fiji, when the surfers luck onto vague directions to a magic island. They hired an amiable crew of Indian boatmen to ferry them out to a palm-shaded atoll. There was no fresh water, fish eluded them, and the few coconuts proved tough to get to. Finnegan and Di Salvatore camped, eating from cans, until one day the “hyperclarity” of Tavarua’s yet-unnamed left rose to meet their greatest expectations. In conversation, Finnegan called it the “biggest stroke of luck in my surf career.” On the page, Tavarua comes to life: “The lineup had an unearthly symmetry. Breaking waves peeled so evenly that they looked like still photographs…and the slingshot aspect of the wave was doubled by a trailing wind that slipped under your board and whispered, ‘Go.’”

To stumble upon one of the world’s greatest waves and to surf it with a buddy for weeks on end is the dream. “The best days at the best breaks have a Platonic aspect, they begin to embody a model of what surfers want waves to be. But that’s the end of it, that beginning.”

It’s as though they’d actually reached, and drank from, a shimmering mirage in the desert. But even Tavarua could not sustain.

The book’s main tension runs between Finnegan’s passion for surfing and his desire to do work that is useful and worthwhile. He is competitive, aggressive even, in all things—but especially in this fight between two parts of himself. It’s a theme that causes one to wonder if Barbarian Days is the apt title. Do barbarians stop to wonder if maybe raping and pillaging aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? Do cowboys pause on the trail and wonder how long they can keep up the cowboy thing? Maybe, in real life, they do.

This fissure in Finnegan opens early. On the Black Sea he stumbles upon “mediocre surf.” It is “brown and misty and blown-out…rolling in from the general direction of Odessa.”

“My lust for new scenes, new adventures,” he wrote, “vanished in a bitter puff as I sat there in the Turkish scrub, not bothering to make camp.”

Yet the surf bug is strong, maybe even stronger than the malaria that brings him down in Thailand. This scene is particularly potent because Finnegan’s own inner tension mirrors one played out between he and Di Salvatore. They’re macho—both writers, both surfers—and they’re competitive. The friendship is on the rocks by the time Finnegan’s health fails. The hospital is too expensive. Finnegan is too sick to “walk across the room.” He’s fevered, delirious, and broke as well. If Finnegan lives, he doesn’t know how he’ll get out of there. Di Salvatore disappears into the Bangkok ether. Late one night, the tall, curly-haired American returns with a shopping bag plumb with “fat, dirty bundles,” Thai currency, enough to spring Finnegan from the sick ward. “[Di Salvatore] took a huge risk, freed me from the hospital and in the process, freed himself from me.”

Finnegan continued on to South Africa—surfed Durban, the Transkei, Jeffreys Bay—and washed up broke again in Cape Town. This was in 1980, and apartheid was in full effect. Local black schools suffered a shortage of teachers. Finnegan was hired immediately. The students seemed “gobsmacked” to encounter the white American, and he took the position very seriously. The course work could only be described as regime propaganda. Finnegan meant to rectify this, but the students resisted. In this exchange, Finnegan had missed something essential.The students were already oppositional and organized, clandestine even. The struggle against apartheid would be held on their own terms. In April, school protests erupted nationwide, and labor protests soon followed. Some of Finnegan’s colleagues and students began to disappear into jail cells or into hiding. The teacher was clearly the one learning lessons. “Seeing the workings of institutionalized injustice, and state terror up relatively close, was deeply affecting me—was making me impatient with, among other things, myself.”

It was in South Africa, Finnegan said, that he committed himself to serious writing.

In his articles for The New Yorker—in 2010, for example, when Finnegan sat across the desk from a Mexican army colonel rumored to have systematically tortured policemen under his own command, and Finnegan cooly asked, man-to-man, if that was the case—it is hard to see the vagabond we meet in Barbarian Days; the one tossing tinnies into that back seat of the Falcon. This is equally true of the Finnegan who recently hiked into the Peruvian Andes’ frigid, dirty, privateer gold mines to find answers to a couple of questions he had. But the tension present in Barbarian Days still hasn’t been settled. After particularly tough assignments, Finnegan often scrounges up a board and paddles out.

For the time being, the surfing and the writing seemed only to have switched positions, like two buddies on a long haul who pull over to swap places behind the wheel.

Editor’s note: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, is out now through Penguin Press. Click here to grab a copy.