Certain hobbies aren’t made for dilettantes. While surfing is more accessible than, say, horseback riding or sailing—all you need is a board and a dream, man—it’s a pastime that can very easily morph into a lifestyle, as journalist William Finnegan discovered after giving over most of his youth, and a portion of his adulthood, to it. In his new memoir, he traces the crests and troughs of his itinerant years coursing the Pacific on the eternal fool’s quest for the perfect wave. “Waves were better than anything in books, better than movies, better than even a ride at Disneyland,” Finnegan writes of the sport that became both his drug and religion, “because with them the charge of danger was uncontrived. It was real.”
The book is a life told through waves, from Finnegan’s childhood in Hawaii and on the California coast to the chunk of his 20s he dedicated to seeking out primordial, untouched beaches in the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa. His pilgrimage led him to forsake family, relationships, and personal safety—surfing in chum-filled waters swarming with sharks and lying in a Bangkok hospital while ravaged by malaria.
Barbarian Days is 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. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from starting to blur together once you’ve reached the 50th or so description, and it can be hard for noninitiates to keep their enthusiasm keen. But despite a little bit of chop, this memoir is one you can ride all the way to shore. B+