“Pictures tell our story better than words ever can,” Pipeline Master Gerry Lopez once said about surfing. Yes and no. Yes, the camera best captures the rainbow spectrum of translucent green-blues, the wafting sea mist, the taut muscles, the thousand-yard stares and the cavernous barrels. But it’s the more ancient medium of words that allows us to penetrate deeper into the myths of surfing, deeper into the proverbial tube of life, deeper into that sacred philosophical space we all seek.
In Barbarian Days, William Finnegan has delivered the surf literary equivalent of the wave of a lifetime at Tavarua. You could never catch that wave in Fiji without decades of preparation, and Finnegan could never have written this book without a life fully lived. This Pulitzer prizewinning masterpiece is the stoked, vigorous and mature surf memoir the Hawaiian sport of kings has been waiting for.
Surf stoke seizes Finnegan in Southern California in the mid 1950s, at the height of the Gidget-fueled Malibu craze for stylish longboarding. We follow the young man through rebellious days in California, and through middle school in Kaimuki as he rumbles his way through a more traditional, more racist and more segregated mid-century Hawaii.
Finnegan evolves through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, but always through the prism of surfing. In 1978 he goes AWOL from UC Santa Cruz and ends up car camping in West Maui with his friend and girlfriend, ravenous for the transcendental tubes of Honolua Bay. This chapter is especially sweet for Maui lovers, as we meet Westside legends like Les Potts, catch a view of Lahaina in the late 1970s and watch Finnegan as he tries to make his way in this remarkable outer island society, just as we all do.
Finnegan is insatiably curious, naturally courageous and sometimes foolish. Whether he’s paddling into the middle of the ocean at sunset to surf a razor sharp reef in Tonga, parting with his teenage girlfriend to solo travel through Eastern Europe or hurling his 44-year-old body into death slab waves on Madeira, Finnegan pushes limits. As Pipe Master Derek Ho said, “You gotta take a few to make a few.” Finnegan charges, he wipes out, but he scores life-enhancing rides. He does it all, in the water and out.
This memoir is surf-centric, written by a waterman about his love of water. But Finnegan is fascinating precisely because his passion for surfing is at times tortured. He wants to please his accomplished parents, engage in socially relevant issues and, perhaps more than anything, write with passion and purpose. As his career unfolds, he shifts from writing fiction to reporting on injustice, oppression, slavery and black markets in Sudan, Somalia, Mexico and El Salvador. He becomes a writer for the New Yorker, and he roams the planet in search of stories worth telling as much as waves worth riding.
In sum, this is the story of a surfer’s life examined. The reckoning is true, the story is riveting and the life is bigger than fiction. For surfers and those who love them, buy and read this book. You should also see him when he appears at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Saturday, Dec. 3, as part of the Merwin Conservancy’s Green Room.
WILLIAM FINNEGAN IN THE GREEN ROOM
Sat. Dec 3. 7pm
Live musical performance, an intimate Q/A with the audience and a reception with dessert, champagne, book fair and signing. All ticket sales benefit the nonprofit Merwin Conservancy.
$25 ($10 for students with ID)
Maui Arts and Cultural Center
1 Cameron Way, Kahului)