William Finnegan, a contributor at The New Yorker, first published a piece about his surfing focused lifestyle in the 1990s. This feature of the transforming and ever influencing surf culture of America was the first of its kind. Previously, non-surfers attempted to explain the sport unsuccessfully, and later in the 60s and 70s surfers attempted to publish semi-literate essays describing their emotions, all of which were incomprehensible. Finnegan provided a series describing both his infatuation and his ambivalence to the art to which he had seemingly dedicated his life. “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” is Finnegan’s memoir, and the sequel to his New Yorker pieces. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a chronicle of Finnegan’s exceptionally adventurous and confused life.
“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” opens around the time when Finnegan first finds himself on a surfboard. It etches imagery into the reader’s mind of his adolescent days of troublemaking during the late 60s, when he was living in Hawaii and California. He establishes sets or cycles, not unlike those of the waves he so aptly describes, which delve deep into the mechanics, social system, and undoubtedly most important for Finnegan, the feelings which accompany the surfer. Finnegan writes of his emotions as he glides through the thundering tunnels of light, sound, and power. We learn about Finnegan’s early life, the science of surfing, the locations he surfed as a beginner, and his feelings as a bookish, and liberal-minded kid who immersed himself in the primal world of big wave surfing.
As “Barbarian Days” progresses, Finnegan moves through school and into college. The most important part of the book is the center, especially for a current student, shackled by the routine and bustle of daily life. Studying Finnegan’s time at college, his discontent, his eventual surfing-induced hermitude in Hawaii, and his return to finish grad school, offers a complete immersion in his life. More surreptitiously, Finnegan plants a seed of contentedness, the now clichéd idea of following one’s path and doing what one truly desires. Finnegan’s clandestine placement of this overused sentiment proves to be the most powerful portion of the novel. Finnegan provides the reader with a beautiful story, laden with imagery and anecdotes, and creates a new perspective on the less thrilling vision of America that young people look forward to today.
Following his completion of grad school, Finnegan worked on a railroad and saved money to go on the ultimate surfing pilgrimage. During a reckless, unplanned expedition through the unsurfed islands and atolls of the Pacific, Finnegan travels and surfs, but is largely unsuccessful in his search for the ideal wave. He is free, unbothered, and happy, but his descriptions of his generally light and easy emotions can be painful to read, so different are they from the modern sentiment of looking forward, planning, and worrying. Throughout his journey the reader uncovers some of the greatest prose of the memoir as he describes his uncomfortable, exotic, dangerous, and in retrospect: humorous experiences. Finnegan tells his tale with a pensive, descriptive style, paired with wonderful stories of adventure. His writing continues to cultivate the seed of freedom and opportunity.
Through the entire memoir, tales of capsized ships, black market exchanges, school dropouts, and mesmerizingly beautiful surf locales, Finnegan traces a philosophy which cannot be more relevant today—don’t take yourself, or for that matter anything, too seriously. This message is both uplifting and destructive, as the melancholy nature requires the reader to question their life, and their true designs for it. Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” is essential to the young adult looking for the correct avenue to follow, as this memoir explains that no avenue is wrong. Finnegan implores you to simply take life as it comes, to forget about the realities of today, and recognize the possibilities of the future.