The Riders of the Waves

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Josh Humbert/National Geographic Creative
Professional surfer Anthony Walsh, Teahupoo, Tahiti, April 2009

There’s a passage near the beginning of Middlemarch in which the narrator describes the view out of a carriage window that depicts, better than anything I’ve ever read, the pleasure of knowing a place intimately. “Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood,” George Eliot writes. She goes on to cite a list of beloved natural features: trees that lean in a certain way, abrupt slopes, a bald spot in a pasture.

These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to [the area’s] souls—the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father’s knees while he drove leisurely.

This capacity for geographical familiarity—knowing exactly where the neighbor’s fence warps slightly—is a visceral kind of knowledge, gained organically, and it atrophies as we age. Learning a place by heart is a luxury rarely afforded to adults, and unless absolutely forced to, one seldom even notices that the ability has been lost.

In his new book, the New Yorker staff writer and veteran war reporter William Finnegan demonstrates the advantages of keeping meticulous mental maps. For him, memorizing a place is a matter of nostalgia, of metaphysical well-being, but also of life and death. Finnegan’s memoir is not about his professional life reporting on blood-soaked Sudan or Bosnia or Nicaragua; it’s about the “disabling enchantment” that is his lifelong hobby.

“The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell…is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break,” he writes in Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Surfers, like children, naturally develop sensory affinity for their surroundings: they can detect minor changes in the smell of the sea, track daily the rise and fall of sandbars, are grateful for particularly sturdy roots onto which they can grab when scurrying down bluffs. The environment becomes an almost anatomical extension of them, mostly because it has to.

Unlike football or baseball or even boxing, surfing is a literarily impoverished sport. The reasons for this are practical. It’s not a spectator sport: it is hard to see surfers from the shore. That the best waves are seldom anywhere near civilization makes it an activity especially resistant to journalism, and first-rate writing by surfers is also rare: the impulse to surf—a “special brand of monomania,” Finnegan calls it—is at direct odds with the indoor obligations of writing.

In many ways this is true for any athletic activity—that its very best practitioners will very seldom be the same people who document it—but it’s particularly true of surfing, which demands more traveling, logistical planning, and waiting around than any other athletic endeavor. Even when surfers are not surfing, they’re thinking about it: listening to buoy reports, peering off cliffs with binoculars, preventing themselves from buying new boards.

Though middle school students have worn surfwear-branded clothing for decades now and surfing has become increasingly popular among the billionaires of Santa Clara County, it remains an elusive pastime in the minds of most everyone who has never done it. The reasons for this too are practical. Appropriate beaches are rare; high schools don’t have teams; and while not as prohibitively expensive as skiing, surfing requires roughly the same amount of cumbersome gear and is, if possible, even more physically uncomfortable. There are the damp, mildewed wetsuits; the feet cut by coral; the sunburns and the salt-stung eyes. Pair all this with the specter of Jeff Spicoli (the surfer and pot smoker played by Sean Penn in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and the easy-to-imitate accent, and you have a hobby that is easy to mock, if not ignore. It’s certainly not a pastime anyone associates with ambition or mental agility.

Which is precisely what makes the propulsive precision of Finnegan’s writing so surprising and revelatory. For over half a century at this point, readers have taken it as a given (and writers as a professional prerogative) that lowbrow culture is deserving of bookish analysis. But unlike so many writhing attempts to extort meaning from topics that seem intellectually bankrupt, 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.

“Getting a spot wired—truly understanding it—can take years,” Finnegan writes, continuing, later, to say that “all surfers are oceanographers.” Over the course of a life spent in and out of the water, he has amassed a truly staggering amount of applied knowledge, of marine biology and carpentry and cartography. Surfing requires kinetic intuition, physical fitness, and courage in the face of an indifferent force, but it also demands the sort of mental work we don’t typically associate with extreme sports. Any good writing about an underexamined way of life must be, at least at times, expository, and Finnegan is lucid when it comes to the necessary task of explaining to the uninitiated some of the most basic tenets of surfing: why waves break where they do; how it’s possible to stand on a floating piece of fiberglass, go into a moving tube of water, and emerge looking just as you did upon entry. But despite all this, surfing, as Finnegan renders it, is more than just a fun physical activity: it’s a way of being in the world, with its own private politics and etiquette and benchmarks of success.

Dedicated surfing, as Finnegan himself admits, is “antisocial and ill-balanced.” Unsurprisingly, it’s often described as an addiction. The racial and generational diversity of a surf lineup resembles nothing so much as the crowds of bewilderingly miscellaneous-seeming people who assemble outside methadone clinics. The men with whom Finnegan surfs share, if not biographical similarities or income brackets, an obsession that is “radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.” They include a blond Ecuadorian named Jose, Australian teenagers with sun-induced cataracts, a geophysicist, Republican contractors from Florida, a modern dancer, an oncologist, and “some young maniac from Oregon.” (Finnegan has a charming tendency to remind us of his amphibious friends with refrains that recur through the book: “the landscape painter from Wales,” “Steve, who loved the Kinks.”) Surfing, as he successfully illustrates, can be an escape from the class antagonism that infuses so many moments of life on land.

It can also be a backdrop to a unique brand of companionship—among men, specifically, which, unlike female friendship, is not often tackled in books. The adoration with which Finnegan writes about his fellow surfers is of a sort usually seen only in soldiers’ memoirs. Bill was “aggressively relaxed—the essential California oxymoron.” Glenn “moved with unusual elegance.” Finnegan writes that “chasing waves remains for me a proximate cause of vivid friendships.” That they are often forged despite unpleasant obstacles (tropical diseases, food poisoning, near drowning) adds a kinetic dimension to what would otherwise be merely interior, emotional dynamics. And as Finnegan admits, “male egos were always subtly, or otherwise, on the line.”

Reputations are made and maintained in the ocean, but they’re premised on more than just talent. Seniority, humility, pain tolerance, and a hundred other factors contribute to a surfer’s local eminence. Speech patterns are just one of the outward signs of the insular social order that attends the sport. Surfers speak in a vivid vernacular: a mix of esoteric oceanographic detail and play-by-play narration expressed in slang. Finnegan is, of course, fluent—in it but also in the language of literature. The adjectives he attributes to waves are alternately the kind one might find in a contemporary novel—hideous, boiling, miraculous, malignant, mechanical—and the sort overheard in rusted-out pickup trucks—rifling, peaky, shifty, hairy, meaty, stupid. On the elemental aspects of surfing, Finnegan is especially capable of coming up with phrases that are at once poetic and concrete. Though “surfers have a perfection fetish…. Waves are not stationary objects in nature like roses or diamonds.” They are, instead, at once “the object of your deepest desire and adoration” but also “your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.” Riding them is “the theoretical solution to an impossibly complex problem.”

Just after his sixtieth birthday, Finnegan caught a pair of waves in Hawaii that were as perfectly hollow and long-lasting as anything he had ridden for thirty years. Getting “barreled” is the term surfers use for the experience of being physically inside of a wave, moving along the face as the lip cascades down from above. It is an act so magical and strange that it almost seems as though no mortal should be able to do it. “Being adjacent to that much beauty—more than adjacent; immersed in, pierced by it—was the point,” he writes. “The physical risks were footnotes.”

Among the most striking features of Finnegan’s prose are the moments when he drops all pretense of tasteful diction. On one page, he’ll describe the ocean water in Honolua as having “hues in its depths so intense they felt like first editions—ocean colors never seen before, made solely for this wave, this moment, perhaps never to be seen again.” And then on another he writes that the ocean’s “color was a muted gray-white until a wave reared; then turquoise floodlights seemed to switch on, illuminating the wave’s guts from the inside.”

Finnegan’s humor, which is subtle but constant, is often descriptive: held-back junior high students who “looked, really, like sanitation workers who had just finished work and were looking forward to that first beer,” a friend whose parents had “already checked out on raising kids, moved on to some internal Florida,” his middle-aged fear of turning into a “pear-shaped pillar of suet.” He also sometimes embraces, brilliantly, a traditional but deadpan setup: a protracted account of a boy urinating in Finnegan’s mouth ends simply with “I stopped hanging around with him.”

Barbarian Days is organized more geographically than chronologically, and it describes an unfathomable life. Finnegan’s childhood was spent between Southern California and Hawaii, where his classmates went to school without shoes and the cafeteria served chow fun. Geckos climbed the walls; sliced pineapple was sold on the street; Chinese women in conical straw hats collected octopus in the reefs. His life there “felt makeshift, barely American.” Finnegan was tracked academically with Japanese girls, who also got good grades, and he spent recesses trying to escape a kind of schoolyard violence “that seems archaic now.” Moving to Hawaii from Southern California snapped him out of “a lifetime of unconscious whiteness.” His childhood memories paint a melancholy portrait of middle-class life as a once-plausibly pleasant reality. Though by no means wealthy, Finnegan’s family was comfortable and materially satisfied in ways that his father’s work (as an electrician, then carpenter, then gas station attendant) would not permit today.

Finnegan skips his high school graduation to travel with a girlfriend to Europe, returns to California to work on a railroad, and then escapes the “disco-dulled, energy-crisis America” of the mid-1970s with a friend and heads to the South Pacific to surf. They learn Spanish so they can speak in secret if they have to and travel to atolls only accessible by an airline run at the whim of a 440-pound Micronesian king. They live on limited amounts of potable water, surf waves that feel “like a test of faith, or a test of sanity, or an enormous, undeserved gift,” and swim among fish “so pointlessly gorgeous I found myself groaning in my snorkel.”

One of the book’s oddest features is the off-handedness with which Finnegan refers to the other, non-surfing aspects of his life. Throughout his cross-continental travels, he alludes casually to a master’s degree earned in the Midwest, an abandoned thousand-page novel, and magazine features he filed from abroad to American periodicals. Surfing, he writes, “contributed little to how I saw myself.” On the face of it, this admission seems fully implausible: Finnegan, according to this book, surfs constantly and arranges his life so as to maximize his time in the water. What he writes is believable only because the quality of his prose and the rigor of his thinking is so high, and we believe him when he describes surfing as a salve for the mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically taxing work of serious journalism, “some battered remnant of childhood that kept drifting incongruously into the foreground of my days.”

From Oceania he and his friend travel to Australia proper, where they’re surprised to learn that surfing is a popular and populist pastime with no connotation of rebellion or derelict priorities, and then to Bangkok, where Finnegan contracts malaria (he pays the hospital bill with forged traveler’s checks). “We had been gone so long now,” he writes, “that I felt unmoored from all possible explanations for this trip. It was certainly no longer a vacation.” Somehow, improbably but not disingenuously, Finnegan worries that he’s wasting his youth. Cape Town follows Southeast Asia. There, he gets a job teaching black high school kids in apartheid-era South Africa. He continues to surf—the region has some of the best waves in the world—but it felt “vaguely embarrassing, almost ignominious” at a time and place where “there was simply no escaping politics.”

When Finnegan finally returns to the States, the America he finds is one of newfangled answering machines and successful peers. He settles in San Francisco, and in surfing inhabits a “world invisible” to his neighbors. With the woman who will become his wife, he moves to New York City for her job. Finnegan’s professional writing becomes more serious, and his trips to embattled nations more frequent. Still, between months spent enmeshed in geopolitical strife, he surfs. If there’s anything missing from this book it’s an acknowledgment of the internal conflict between professionalism and pleasure, a catalog of instances when work prevented him from surfing or of times when he chose aquatic joy instead of the responsibilities of the shore.

Barbarian Days, like so many memoirs, reads like less of an autobiography about surfing than an account of an enviable and obsolete way of life. Finnegan is an undeniably successful person who twice dropped out of college, refused to have a checking account until the age of thirty-one, and didn’t live at a single address for longer than fifteen months for the first decade and a half of his adult life. It’s inimitable today. Finnegan seems to understand this himself, which is what prevents the book from ever sounding generationally smug. The book is a corrective to the countless Op-Eds that would like us to believe the endlessly bandied-about concept of “the extended adolescence” is both especially contemporary and socially malignant. Finnegan was refusing to professionalize decades ago, and he seems to have turned out more than fine.

He has written the oddly uncommon story of a life shaped by leisure. Barbarian Days is a motivated memoir: it explains why Finnegan is who he is, and how he got to do the things that he’s done. Surfing, in the most basic of ways, determined for decades where in the world he was at a given time, and with whom he spoke and laughed and ate. How a person spends his free time—what he chooses to do when he can do anything at all—is one of the most important things about him. But Barbarian Days is less an ode to independence than a celebration of deliberate constriction, of making choices that determine what you think about and who you know. Surfing demands intuition and familiarity with one’s surroundings but it does not allow for the perceptive disregard that so often accompanies deep knowledge. As Finnegan demonstrates, surfing, like good writing, is an act of vigilant noticing.