Book Review: Barbarian Days. A Surfing Life
It is not always easy to explain the origin of our hobbies. Ask for example those parents obsessed with enrolling their kids to all kind of extracurricular activities that end up frustrated when they see their children do not want to play the piano or play tennis like them. Or those who, without doing any effort, see how their children develop an unexpected passion for an activity they never saw at home.
That was the case of William Finnegan, a well-known journalist from the New Yorker, who discovered his passion for surfing when he was a young kid living in the interior of California. "We lived far from the coast when I was small. I was not a beach kid. How, then, did surfing become the tumbling center of my tender years?” writes Finnegan in his new book Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography 2016.
It was thanks to the Beckets, - “ocean people”, he writes - that the acclaimed author discovered the pleasure of standing up over the waves. The Beckets were family friends who lived in Newport Beach, which in the end of the 1050’s was an old fishing and yachting town fifty miles south of Los Angeles, with whom Finnegan spent long periods of time. The Beckets had six kids, and the older, Bill, was his age. “He was a true beach kid, with a crew cut bleached white by sun, feet with soles like wood, and a back that in summer went black as a tar,” he writes.
His autobiography, a mix of personal diary and time-travel book to California in the 1960s, is also a reliable portrait of the birth of a new class of white modern Americans, in contraposition with the conservative society emerging from the Great Depression. Finnegan himself was raised in a white catholic family of Irish origin, but their parents were much more open-minded than most of his neighbors in Woodland Hills, a white suburb in inner Los Angeles.
“It felt like a small town, and it was run by xenophobic hardheads. My parents and their liberal, cosmopolitan friends were a minority,”, he remembers.
It took years before Finnegan started to become more interested in books or writing. “The waves were better than anything you could find in a book, a movie, or even a Disneyland attraction, because with them the burden of danger was uncontrolled. It was real, "he writes.
William took advantage of his parents “laissez faire” education. He often disappeared for hours to surf in the ocean, a passion that he could develop to the limits when his family moved to Hawaii because of his father’s job, a television producer. The author recalls his experience in a Hawaiian school and describes the contrasts between the white community and the locals, the natives, who considered surfing almost like a religion.
“The waves were better than anything you could find in a book, a movie, or even a Disneyland attraction, because with them the burden of danger was uncontrolled. It was real."
When the family moved back to California, William soon enrolled in Santa Cruz University to study Literature. He chose Santa Cruz because it was a good surfing spot, no other reason, he admits. And he never finished his studies. His love for surf made him quit college to move to Hawaii with her College girlfriend, for the disappointment of his family.
In order to survive economically, he worked in a small local bookstore, "where customers were all tourists, hippies, surfers and hippie-surfers. Without particularly thinking about it, I began to dislike all four groups, "he writes. "I found out myself proselytizing from behind my little bookstore counter, trying to get people interested in reading literature, history, interested in anything besides their souvenirs, their chackras, their pit latrines( ...) I felt suddenly old, like some kind of premature anti-hippie."
His unwillingness to settle down led him to start a trip around the world with his surfer friend Dominique. They visited different countries and places, and Finnegan punctually wrote stories for some magazines. But they were surfing whenever they could. Because “when you surf, as I then understood it, you live and breathe waves. You always know what the surf is doing. You cut school, lose jobs, lose girlfriends, if it’s good.”
The final stop of his trip was South Africa, where he started to worked as a teacher in a school for black children. Finnegan was shocked to discover the harsh reality of apartheid. The job at the Cape Town school awoke his social awareness and marked a new direction in his life. The one who was gradually taking him back to the United States and to what would be his current job: journalist.
Mixing personal memories, travel chronicles and social descriptions, Finnegan's book is a complete itinerary through the new American middle class that timidly opened to globalization. And above all, the book is a portrait of the slow construction of a writer. For Finnegan, writing is a hobby that has a similar effect to surfing, as he beautifully describes it when he remembers her girlfriend Caryn, who was looking for his father in Hawaii. “She, for good reason, felt abandoned by her father. I, for less unidentifiable reasons, felt abandoned generally... I read and wrote feverishly. My journals were full of anguish, sex-excoriation, ambition, … One of the things that calmed me reliably was surfing”.