I could give two scoots about surfing -- I can barely swim -- but a memoir about surfing has had me in its thrall for the past week. (Granted, being pounded by endless wintry mix has helped.)
I've been selling William Finnegan's Barbarian Days on the strength of an excerpt of the book that ran in the New Yorker in 2015, which I thought was terrific. I am coming clean -- I've read the entire book now -- and it's even better in the whole.
Barbarian Days is not so much about surfing as it is about a person being drawn into an abiding passion and living it, trying for years to understand both the ocean and his desire to slide around on it.
It's about the allure of danger and the pull of power, especially when that power is cloaked in the ever-changing beauty of water and waves. And it's about learning a skill set to deal with that power, and then, when youthful strength and courage wane and caution creeps in, using the wiles of maturity to carry on, even if that means passing on waves one might have leapt at years earlier. Universal truths about any number of abiding passions....
Surfing, or rather the desire to surf, takes Finnegan all over the world, Spain, South Africa, Australia. He grows up in the water. He and some of his fellow surfers are a bit more literary than the popular image of the beach boy, and he is likely to walk to the water with his board under one arm and a book under the other, which may account for how well this book is written.
Finnegan comes home and eventually becomes a well-regarded author and journalist (New Yorker) and author, often reporting on war. He doesn't surf as much as he used to, but does go out in the frigid Atlantic, his passion not yet spent.
Barbarian Days won the 2016 Pulitzer for biography. Well-deserved. - Carin