Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
A deeply rendered self-portrait of a lifelong surfer by the acclaimed New Yorker writer
Barbarian Days is William Finnegan's memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment. Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates, it is something else entirely: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life. Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing as a child. He has chased waves all over the world, wandering for years through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa. A bookish boy, and then an excessively adventurous young man, he went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter. Barbarian Days takes us deep into unfamiliar worlds, some of them right under our noses--off the coasts of New York and San Francisco. It immerses the reader in the edgy camaraderie of close male friendships annealed in challenging waves.
Finnegan shares stories of life in a whitesonly gang in a tough school in Honolulu even while his closest friend was a Hawaiian surfer. He shows us a world turned upside down for kids and adults alike by the social upheavals of the 1960s. He details the intricacies of famous waves and his own apprenticeships to them. Youthful folly--he drops LSD while riding huge Honolua Bay, on Maui--is served up with rueful humor. He and a buddy, their knapsacks crammed with reef charts, bushwhack through Polynesia. They discover, while camping on an uninhabited island in Fiji, one of the world's greatest waves. As Finnegan's travels take him ever farther afield, he becomes an improbable anthropologist: unpicking the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissecting the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, navigating the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria. Throughout, he surfs, carrying readers with him on rides of harrowing, unprecedented lucidity.
Barbarian Days is an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art. Today, Finnegan's surfing life is undiminished. Frantically juggling work and family, he chases his enchantment through Long Island ice storms and obscure corners of Madagascar.
Winner of Pulitzer Prize for Biography 2016. Shortlisted for Cross Sports Book Awards General Outstanding Sports Writing 2016.
A surfer's tale of his quest for self-transcendence is a masterpiece that recalls early James Salter Geoff Dyer, the Observer I don't know anything about surfing, but I was gripped by the intensity of his language, never mind the thrilling recklessness of his behaviour in the waves Olivia Laing, Guardian Best Holiday Reads 2015 There are too many breathtaking, original things in Barbarian Days to do more than mention here - observations about surfing that have simply never been made before, or certainly never so well. But a particularly remarkable feature of Barbarian Days is the generous yet unsparing portraits of competitive surf friendships that make up a major share of the narrative New York Times Nothing I've read so accurately describes the feeling of being stoked or the despair of being held under. But also because while it is a book about 'A Surfing Life' - as the subtitle states - it's also about a writer's life and, even more generally, a quester's life, more carefully observed and precisely rendered than any I've read in a long time LA Times Surfing is Topic A here, but it inevitably connects with politics (when Mr. Finnegan taught in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1981, students boycotted his classes to protest apartheid), environmental issues (he sees great surf spots both created and destroyed by human enterprise) and much more. New York Times, Cool Beach Books for Hot Summer Days Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery... a coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard Sports Illustrated For pure sensation, pick up New Yorker writer William Finnegan's memories of the beach, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Just try and keep the sand out of your book ... and out of your sandwich. Publishers Weekly, Best Summer Books 2015 Luscious Ed Caesar, Guardian A far-ranging, unique and bewitching memoir ... You don't need to have surfed to enjoy this book. Literary Review How many ways can you describe a wave? You'll never get tired of watching Finnegan do it. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he leads a counterlife as an obsessive surfer, traveling around the world, throwing his vulnerable, merely human body into line after line of waves in search of transient moments of grace ... It's an occupation that has never before been described with this tenderness and deftness TIME Magazine, Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2015 The kind of book that makes you squirm in your seat on the subway, gaze out the window at work, and Google Map the quickest route to the beach. In other words, it is, like Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, a semi-dangerous book, one that persuades young men ... to trade in their office jobs in order to roam the world, to feel the ocean's power, and chase the waves The Paris Review Terrific ... Elegantly written and structured, it's a riveting adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, and a restless, searching meditation on love, friendship and family ... A writer of rare subtlety and observational gifts, Finnegan explores every aspect of the sport - its mechanics and intoxicating thrills, its culture and arcane tribal codes - in a way that should resonate with surfers and non-surfers alike. His descriptions of some of the world's most powerful and unforgiving waves are hauntingly beautiful ...Finnegan displays an honesty that is evident throughout the book, parts of which have a searing, unvarnished intensity Washington Post Overflowing with vivid descriptions of waves caught and waves missed, of disappointments and ecstasies and gargantuan curling tubes that encircle riders like cathedrals of pure stained glass ... These paragraphs, with their mix of personal remembrance and subcultural taxonomies, tend to be as elegant and pellucid as the breakers they immortalize ... This memoir is one you can ride all the way to shore Entertainment Weekly Without a doubt, the finest surf book I've ever read ... All this technical mastery and precise description goes hand in hand with an unabashed, infectious earnestness. Finnegan has certainly written a surfing book for surfers, but on a more fundamental level, Barbarian Days offers a clear eyed vision of American boyhood. Like Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, it is a sympathetic examination of what happens when literary ideas of freedom and purity take hold of a young mind and fling his body out into the far reaches of the world New York Times Magazine Which is precisely what makes the propulsive precision of Finnegan's writing so surprising and revelatory ... Finnegan's treatment of surfing never feels like performance. Through the sheer intensity of his descriptive powers and the undeniable ways in which surfing has shaped his life, Barbarian Days is an utterly convincing study in the joy of treating seriously an unserious thing ... As Finnegan demonstrates, surfing, like good writing, is an act of vigilant noticing The New York Review of Books Gorgeously written and intensely felt ... With Mr Finnegan's bravura memoir, the surfing bookshelf is dramatically enriched. It's not only a volume for followers of the sport. Non-surfers, too, will be treated to a travelogue head-scratchingly rich in obscure, sharply observed destinations ... Dare I say that we all need MrFinnegan...as a role model for a life fully, thrillingly, lived Wall Street Journal Irresistible O, The Oprah Magazine It's always fabulous when an incredible writer happens to also have a memoir-worthy life; Barbarian Days bodes well GQ.com A dream of a book by a masterful writer long immersed in surfing culture. Finnegan recaptures the waves lost and found, the euphoria, the danger ... the allure BBC.com A skillful, masterful memoir ... it's a book about surfing, of course, but it's not just for surfers. Finnegan's skill sees him trace memories and emotions with honesty. The Skinny
WILLIAM FINNEGAN is the author of Cold New World, A Complicated War, Dateline Soweto, and Crossing the Line. He has twice been a National Magazine Award finalist and has won numerous journalism awards, including two Overseas Press Club awards since 2009. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987, he lives in Manhattan.