“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
Included in President Obama’s 2016 Summer Reading List
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: 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 forged in challenging waves.
Finnegan shares stories of life in a whites-only gang in a tough school in Honolulu. 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. As Finnegan’s travels take him ever farther afield, he discovers the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissects the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, and navigates 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.
Praise for Barbarian Days:
“Without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read . . . 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.”—The New York Times Magazine
“Incandescent . . . I’d sooner press this book upon on a nonsurfer, in part because nothing I’ve read so accurately describes the feeling of being stoked or the despair of being held under. . . . [But] 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.”—Los Angeles Times
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © William Finnegan, 2015.
At the post office in Nuku’alofa, I tried to send my father a telegram. It was 1978, his fiftieth birthday. But I couldn’t tell if the message actually went through. Did anyone back home even know what country we were in?
I wandered down a road of half-built cinderblock houses. There was a strange, philosophical graffito: ALL OUTER PROGRESS PRODUCE CRIMINAL. I passed a graveyard. In the cemeteries in Tonga, late in the day, there always seemed to be old women tending the graves of their parents—combing the coral-sand mounds into the proper coffin-top shape, sweeping away leaves, hand washing faded wreaths of plastic flowers, rearranging the haunting patterns of tropical peppercorns, orange and green on bleached white sand.
A shiver of secondhand sorrow ran through me. And an ache of something else. It wasn’t exactly homesickness. It felt like I had sailed off the edge of the known world. That part was actually fine with me. The world was mapped in so many different ways. For worldly Americans, the whole globe was covered by the foreign bureaus of the better newspapers. But the truth was, we were wandering now through a world that would never be part of any correspondent’s beat. It was full of news, but all of it was oblique, mysterious, important only if you listened and watched and felt its weight.
On the ferry here, I had ridden on the roof with three boys who said they planned to see every kung-fu and cowboy and cop movie playing at the three cinemas in Nuku’alofa until their money ran out. One boy, thin and laughing and fourteen, told me that he had quit school because he was “lazy.” He had a Japanese comic book that got passed around the ferry roof. The book was a bizarre mashup: cutesy children’s cartoons, hairy-armed war stories, nurse-and-doctor soap opera, graphic pornography. A ferry crewman frowned when he got to the porn, tore each page out, crumpled it, and threw it in the sea. The boys laughed. Finally, with a great bark of disgust, the sailor threw the whole book in the water, and the boys laughed harder. I watched the tattered pages float away in a glassy lagoon. I closed my eyes. I felt the weight of unmapped worlds, unborn language. I knew I was chasing something more than waves.
So the sadness of the obscure graveyard, of unforgotten elders buried under sand made my chest tight. It seemed to mock this whole vague childish enterprise.
Still, something beckoned. Maybe it was Fiji.
Table of Contents
1 Off Diamond Head: Honolulu, 1966-67 1
2 Smell the Ocean: California, ca. 1956-65 59
3 The Shock of the New: California, 1968 85
4 'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky: Maui, 1971 105
5 The Search: The South Pacific, 1978 147
6 The Lucky Country: Australia, 1978-79 209
7 Choosing Ethiopia: Asia, Africa, 1979-81 237
8 Against Dereliction: San Francisco, 1983-86 277
9 Basso Profundo: Madeira, 1994-2003 351
10 The Mountains Fall into the Heart of the Sea: New York City, 2002-15 409
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a must read for surfers and those who want insight into the mind of a surfer. More so, this is a great book about life in general. We see the intimacies of the author's life poured out across the pages. Sometimes seeing what makes other's "tick" teaches us a lot about ourselves, for better or worse.
As a surfer, I totally enjoyed this book. The author has surfed many great breaks and eloquently describes them.
Enjoyed the travel through life - living the adventure and the emotional growth. Beautifully retrospective while embracing life lived well.
This book started off great and really takes the reader through a bit of surfing history, the author’s life and his thought process on surfing and life in general. For about 80% of the book I found it engaging, interesting and really enjoyed being along for that wave. By the time his travels brought him east though I found the story less interesting and more mundane, focusing on his aging and physical abilities rather than his travels. Overall it’s a great read if you like to surf or love to travel. It’s eye opening and illuminating to see the world through the author’s point of view.
An engaging and well written story of a guy's attempt to balance his life ambition (dicovering cultural and societal intricacies in the US and around the world and writing about it) with the passion and adventure of a surfer's quest to find the perfect wave and explain the magic that drives a surfer's life
If you are a soul surfer you can really identify w this book. Finnegan weaves a travelog and lifestyle well. Not a typical surf book at all. I wish it was longer.
A fabulous book in every way. Brilliantly and sensitively written. A must read for both surfers and non- surfers. The best memoir I've read in decades.