I didn’t expect to find a surfing memoir via a podcast about American politics, but amongst all the gloom of the Slate Political Gabfest’s coverage of the last Presidential election cycle there was a recommendation to read Barbarian Days by Bill Finnegan. Soon afterwards, I heard that the book had won the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in the UK, having already picked up a Pulitzer for Biography. A surfing book? A Pulitzer? Really? The rebel alliance has clearly been sucked into the mainstream - this one obviously had to be read.
Bill Finnegan is a New Yorker staffer with a background in political and conflict reportage, so he knows his writing chops and has the contacts and reputation for this to come to the attention of the literary establishment in a way that most surfing books probably don’t. Having said that, this is the best book on the topic that I’ve read since Andy Martin’s Walking on Water, another minor masterpiece.
He never says as much, but Finnegan is a minor hellman, a big-wave surfer. Not the truly giant stuff taken on by household names like Laird Hamilton (ok, showing my age now) but still, this is a guy who has taken on most of the world’s best waves, including some of the heaviest. A man who has consistently surfed sessions in 10-15ft, often at breaks where reefs and rocks require complete commitment.
Very few of the people that can do this can also write as well as Finnegan, and the descriptions he brings back from the wave face and ‘out the back’ in big swells ring with a sonorous truth.
Bill Finnegan also captures the moment and the people beautifully, growing up in the 60s in LA and Hawaii, travelling cheap and light looking for waves in the 70s and 80s. I found myself constantly drawn back to this book, and to the water. The recent arrival of two children mean that it’s been a long while since I bothered to check the surf at the local breaks. I’m thinking that needs to change.