Book Review: Barbarian Days

Greetings from Costa Rica! 

For the first post of the year I decided to do a book review of William Finnegan's Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Penguin, 2015). I have been planning to do so since I first read the book, but other duties have kept it on the back burner. Now I want to give my copy to my brother before I leave Costa Rica, but not before I write this review.

  Barbarian Days  in the jungle of Costa Rica at Rancho Diandrew where this copy will live after I am gone. 

Barbarian Days in the jungle of Costa Rica at Rancho Diandrew where this copy will live after I am gone. 

I would think that most people reading/following this blog have already read or at least own Barbarian Days. I say this because it was given to me by a CSC member (Paul, who is on his way down here today), and I have had conversations with other members about it on rides to the beach. I see it on all of the shelves and table displays of the local surf shops, and two big chunks of the text have already been published in The New Yorker where Finnegan is a staff writer -- first "Playing Doc's Games" Pts i and ii, August 24 and 31, 1992; second "Off Diamond Head", June 1, 2015 (I have learned that most New Yorker pieces are simply discreet advertisements for future books). 

With so many people having read it or who are planning on reading it, I am not going to give a synopsis of the narrative. And besides it is a memoir so it should suffice to say that it roughly follows the events of Finnegan's life, which has been primarily centered around surfing. This is the first thing I like about the book: it is written by a person who is completely obsessed with surfing. He has structured his life to be able to surf, and even when he has taken hiatuses for work and self discovery, he always comes back to this driving force. In this way Finnegan's book has a legitimizing quality for me. The fact that he has managed to make a career for himself while still structuring his life around surfing assures me that I am not alone. He is also able to articulate the doubts that beleaguer this life choice -- those same doubts that are assuaged when one learns that others also have them. 

The second thing I like about the book are the descriptions of how waves break. After my first read I mused that if I took all the parts from Barbarian Days where he describes breaking waves I could have a handy little guide to surfing. I intend to write some sort of ethics of surfing one day, and so I admire the way Finnegan handles the basics of wave generation and mechanics for his non initiated readers: 

Here's how ridable waves form. A storm out at sea churns the surface, creating chop--smaller and larger disorganized wavelets, which amalgamate, with enough wind, into heavy seas. What we are waiting for on distant coasts is the energy that escapes from the storm, radiating outward into calmer waters in the form of wave trains--groups of waves, increasingly organized, that travel together. Each wave sets off a column of orbiting water, most of it below the surface. All the wave trains produced by a storm constitute what surfers call a swell. The swell can travel thousands of miles. The more powerful the storm, the farther the swell may travel. As it travels, it becomes more organized--the distance between each wave in a train, known as the interval, becomes uniform. In a long interval-train, the orbiting water may extend more than a thousand feet beneath the ocean surface. Such a train can pass easily through surface resistance like chop or other smaller, shallower swells that it crosses or overtakes.  
As waves from a swell approach a shoreline, their lower ends begin to feel the sea bottom. Wave trains become sets--groups of waves that are larger and longer-interval than their more locally generated cousins. The approaching waves refract (bend) in response to the shape of the sea bottom. The visible part of the wave grows, its orbiting energy pushed higher above the surface. The resistance offered by the sea bottom increases as the water gets shallower, slowing the progress of the wave. The wave above the surface steepens. Finally, it becomes unstable and prepares to topple forward--to break. The rule of thumb is that it will break when the wave height reaches 80 percent of the water's depth--an eight-foot wave will break in ten feet of water. But many factors, some of them endlessly subtle--wind, bottom contour, swell angle, currents--determine exactly where and how each wave breaks. As surfers, we're just hoping that it has a catchable moment (a takeoff point), and a ridable face, and that it doesn't break all at once (close out) but instead breaks gradually, successively (peels), in one direction or the other (left or right), allowing us to travel roughly parallel to shore, riding the face, for a while, in that spot, in that moment, just before it breaks (41-2). 

I have read similar descriptions before in books such as Drew Kampion's The Book of Waves: Form and Beauty on the Ocean (1989), Willard Bascom's Waves and Beaches (1980), and H. Arthur Klein's Surfing (1965), and can attest that here Finnegan deftly merges all three. What is of particular importance is the emphasis he places on swell interval, which because the waves are generated as described above, is the most important factor in reading a surf report. Interval, more than wave height, gives us an idea about the size and consistency of any given swell. 

The third thing I like about Barbarian Days is Finnegan's attunement to critical themes having to do with cultural dynamics. Most surf writing, like surf film, is just plain corny and shallow. For some reason the awesomeness of the ocean and the thrill of riding a wave has eluded surf writers for decades. Furthermore, surf culture more generally has a tendency to whitewash its complicity in the continued colonial, imperial, misogynistic, hegemonic, western domination of the known world. The reportage of his early days in Hawaii is a good example:

I already knew, in rough outline, what had happened to the Hawaiians--how American missionaries and other haoles and subjugated them, stolen their lands, killed them en masse with diseases, and converted the survivors to Christianity. I felt no responsibility for this cruel dispossession, no liberal guilt, but I knew enough to keep my junior atheist's mouth shut (17). 

Sometimes it is enough to admit one's complicity. I do not think Finnegan fashions himself an activist here, nor does he have any intentions to, but I do think that he does illuminate the political conundrum of the (especially white) surfer: we benefit from unequal power structures and feel them to be unjust and even though we know this, when faced with a decision to pick up a protest sign or go surfing, we will choose surfing every time. Nonetheless, as Finnegan shows here, we can at the very least learn to identify these dynamics and in paying witness to them try our best not to interfere with codes into which we were not born, or at the very least to learn to maintain a respectful distance. Anyone who has traveled to Hawaii to surf understands what I mean by this respectful distance. There are certain mokes whose waves you do not even look at. It is their land and their waves and if you are lucky and exude aloha (which is also a code of respect) you will get a few of your own--maybe not a ton, but that's part of understanding the history and acknowledging your place in the pecking order. 

The fourth thing I like about Barbarian Days is that Finnegan writes about San Francisco and New York, the two cities in which I have lived and surfed for most of my adult life (10 years in SF, going on 7 in NY). I appreciate his diagnosis of the difference in the two surf cultures: 

Surfers around here--Long Island and Jersey locals--are strangely genial. I've never gotten used to it. There was a baseline reserve in California and Hawaii, an idea of cool in the water--what was worth saying, what level of ride or wave or maneuver merited a hoot of approbation--that I internalized as a kid and can't unlearn. On this coast, people will hoot anyone, friend or stranger, for almost anything that looks halfway decent. I like the unpretentiousness, the lack of snobbery, and yet some unredeemed part of me recoils. Greater New York lineups are, against stereotype, mellow. I have never seen a threat or an angry exchange, let alone a fight, in the water here. That's partly because the crowds are never maddeningly terrible, a la Malibu or Rincon, partly because the waves are usually not worth fighting over, but mostly it's culture. A certain superciliousness and self-absorption that long ago became the norm on more celebrated coasts and islands in surf world have never taken root in these parts. It's easy to strike up a conversation in the lineup with a stranger here--I've done it a hundred times. People are even eager to share detailed knowledge of their local breaks. Another transplant surfer I know calls it 'urban aloha.' But it's really more suburban or shore-town. At least I've never met anybody in the water who said they live in Manhattan. Brooklyn, a few times, yes (419-20). 

This part of the book is clearly dated, either that or Finnegan clearly has not surfed Long Beach or Rockaway in the past couple of years. But the overall emphasis that people in the water are nicer on the East Coast than on the West Coast and in Hawaii still rings true. I know. I just got back from 7 day trip to California. Unlike Finnegan, however, I have gotten used to the genial vibe in the breaks closest to Brooklyn and Manhattan (and of course most of us now know tons of people who surf and who live in both). When I surf in CA I wish people would just get over themselves and share waves. On the same token, I have also seen a bit more gruffness on the East Coast than Finnegan admits to here. I have seen a woman in Rockaway completely scream at two guys for close to 15 minutes straight and have also seen photos of another man from there attempting to rip the fins out of a another guy's surfboard.  But that is seriously nothing compared to the daily bad vibes and heinous stuff I have seen and experienced growing up on the West Coast. In this light, I do understand and identify with Finnegan's reticence to feel more a part of the East Coast surfing culture. There's a part of a West Coast surfer's mentality that makes you feel that people have to earn their excitement about surfing. That's the reserve he's talking about, the idea of cool. You pull into a barrel and come out with your head down as if nothing happened at all, giggling to yourself, and feeling superior in a very strange and powerful way. You are not going to claim it, but you will certainly accept any and all compliments. The truth is though, that there are surfers like that on both coasts. And there are also wild yahoos with no etiquette on both coasts. And the waves are more powerful on the West Coast. And people are more gruff. And when New Jersey is doing it's thing it is as good as anywhere that gets perfect in the world. So is Ocean Beach, SF. But the paddle, like the culture, is concretely more difficult. And yet, both densely populated urban areas are pretty awesome places to be a surfer, especially if you have a lot of drive and a knack for cold water and weather (and a car helps too--for escaping). 

My only criticism is that in many ways Finnegan is a grumpy old elitist fart. He knows that. He is honest about it and it is refreshing, but it is still what it is. He learned to surf in the 1960s in the meccas of surfing, Southern California and Hawaii. His dad was in film and became a kind of aficionado of films made by the sea and so he was always in great locations at a time when there were relatively few surfers around. He went on insane adventures and charges huge surf and believes that you have to take your hard knocks because that's how he did it. He resents how popular surfing has always been, mocks surf schools, and professional surfing. And I get it and I give it to him, but at the same time, at the very heart of it, it is the one thing that I am ambivalent towards in this book. This is probably because it is what I struggle with most with myself. Surfing is both something that I want desperately to share with other people and to keep to myself. But, to be completely transparent, I have found the genial, sharing with others kind of surfing, mixed with the codes of etiquette and respect of the old ways is truly the future of our great language game. This belief is ultimately why I founded Conatus Surf Club. I believe, unlike many old salty dogs, that like any language, the crucial parts of the surfing vocabulary can be and ought to be taught in a roughly formal manner. The wild west individualist approach has its merits, but overall I think that it is possible to integrate it in a more flourishing and communal way. We are capable of sharing waves with one another. We are also capable, still in 2016, of finding moments and peaks without many other people except our good surf buddies. You just have to have the gumption and fortitude to track them down, to choose joy through a certain kind of wild discipline, a sort of barbarian code of honor.  

The word barbarian is extremely loaded. It is not as though barbarians are not civilized, if by civilized we mean having language and codes of conduct. In fact it is kind of a misnomer for any culture outside of the hegemonic fold. In the original sense it simply means 'non-Greeks', at the time when the Greeks were founding all of Western philosophy, science, and history. But barbarians, like surfers, were only quasi counter-hegemonic. Barbarian cultures have always had their own myths, their own leaders, their own norms, their own sectarian squabbles, and even their own revolutions. Like all species and tribes, moreover, they also shift, change, mutate, transform, and ultimately (I like to think) evolve. 

In summation, this is an instant classic of surf literature, if that's even a genre. It is easy to forgive Finnegan for his barbaric prickliness because he provides us the historical coordinates in which we can contextualize it. And it is important for all of us to have this historical scope. Surfing, like everything else in our culture, is easier to access and consume than ever before. And besides that it has always been susceptible to extreme poseurs. This kind of unreflective consumption does need to be avoided and one of the best ways to do so is to arm oneself with a kind of deep historical grit. Finnegan is a forefather of the city surfer, a most civilized barbarian, and it pays to sit and listen to him talk story for 447 pages.