Surfing has been the "tumbling centre" of William Finnegan's life. Photo: Gallery Stock
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The New Yorker war reporter who took to surfing

From Fiji to San Francisco, William Finnegan evokes the magic and terror of chasing waves in rapturous prose.

Barbarian Days: a Surfing Life
William Finnegan
Penguin, 464pp, £18.45

William Finnegan is a New Yorker staff writer and war reporter, and he is also a lifelong surfer. Both occupations border on the addictive or the obsessive, and it was a long time before he allowed them to intersect. He first seriously broached the subject of surfing in print back in 1992, when he published “Playing Doc’s Games”, an enormous, dizzyingly beautiful, two-part essay in the New Yorker about the big-wave scene in San Francisco. It took seven years to write it, partly because he didn’t want to out himself as a surfer and partly because he liked, or perhaps required, surfing to remain an unexamined secret, a private realm.

“Having a sizable tract of unconsciousness near the centre of my life suited me, somehow,” he says. Both the phrasing and the thought itself are characteristic of Finnegan’s style and go some way to explaining why a nearly 500-page memoir about a sport I’ve never tried might be so astonishingly gripping, so luminous as to fill my dreams with curling overheads for weeks. Like “Doc’s Games”, Barbarian Days is huge, intimate, hyperreal, a bewitching account of an entire life by way of waves. What he’s writing about is not just the gnarly art of ripping, but single-mindedness, beauty, ambition, skill; a drama enacted on peeling lefts and wild black sets that threaten to turn the fittest swimmer into a battered ragdoll.

Finnegan first rode a board – borrowed, green – at the age of ten and was immediately enraptured by the sensation of speed, of impossibly fluent carriage. When he was in eighth grade, his family upped sticks from California to Hawaii. As a haole (white boy), he was in a tiny, unpopular minority at his rough new school. Surfing offered a respite, an escape from both loneliness and fights. Each day he rose before dawn to paddle half a mile to the reef off Diamond Head, where he learned his craft among a handful of magically talented local boys.

Surfing was an all-consuming pastime then, “the tumbling centre” of his youth, and its hold didn’t slacken as he crested into adulthood. After a brief foray into education and a longer stint as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific railroad, he set off in 1978 on “an open-ended wave chase”, following winter swells through the South Seas in the company of his friend Bryan Di Salvatore (later also a notably skilled writer for the New Yorker). Together they pushed west, from Guam to Western Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, staying with local families, getting high on kava and braving sharks and sea snakes in order to surf deserted beaches where no shortboard or pintail had ever been seen.

There’s a Boy’s Own quality to these adventures that, though entertaining, would eventually grate, were it not for the rapturous quality of Finnegan’s writing. Surfing, after all, is doing the same thing again and again, and it takes a very good writer indeed to be able to convey the subtle, illuminating differences between each ride: the lacework of a breaking wave, the moving green lights in its pitted flank, the muscular effort of threading slack sections or whipping exhilarated through a chandeliering tube. Finnegan makes these repetitions endlessly involving, conveying their extreme pleasure by way of language, a sinuous kind of transference.

Take this description of a previously ­undiscovered wave on a deserted island off Fiji, a wave so perfect that Salvatore and Finnegan superstitiously refuse to name its location even to each other, referring to it instead as da kine, Hawaiian for “the thing”. “It was midday, and the straight overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended over the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing . . . when I caught one and stood up, it disappeared. I was flying down the line but all I could see was brilliant reef streaming under my feet. It was like surfing on air.”

This is dreamlike writing but Finnegan is also capable of conveying nightmares. After returning from the South Seas, he ­began regularly surfing the freezing waves of West Beach, San Francisco, where he was frequently caught inside by giant sets.

My arms felt rubbery and I started hyperventilating. I dived very early and very deep. The deeper I swam, the colder and darker the water got. The noise as the wave broke was preternaturally low, a basso profundo of utter violence, and the force pulling me backwards and upwards felt like some nightmare inversion of gravity.

Bad things happen to surfers: feet torn on reefs, infected cuts from filthy water, broken noses and ankles from smashing into rocks, near-drownings. You have to be tough to withstand the punishment, and one of the half-submerged preoccupations of Finnegan’s memoir is with masculinity. His surfing world is exclusively male: a place of uneasy competition and intense bonds. He almost always has one particular surf partner, and though a beloved wife and daughter are present here, the more urgent focus is on these complicated brotherhoods.

In this world resilience matters and so does style, one of the many things surfing has in common with writing. While he was travelling, Finnegan was working on a novel about brakemen. Eventually he gave it up, he explains, because the few interested editors “wanted me to unpack the technical language, the railroad jargon, for the general reader, but that was where the poetry was, I thought”. Although he does when necessary explain the physics and practice of wave-catching, Barbarian Days is likewise rich with unfamiliar terminology, a lexicon of sets and intervals, point and beach breaks, barrels, bowls, tubes and take-off spots: all of which plunge the non-surfer into a startlingly complicated, motionful world.

And then there is the sea itself, animated, almost alive. Finnegan watches it as intently as a lover, rising before dawn, staying out until the light is gone and he is surfing by feel alone. Rapt attention is necessary when far out in an element that can kill you, and it gives way over and over to states of rapture. Waves might be solid or mushy or crumbling, might rise many times the height of a man’s head, but when you get it right you can enter a kind of communion with them, slipping away from the world at large, “drawing a high line behind the thick, pouring, silver-beaded curtain”.

Except that the world has a tendency to follow. Surfing may have been a region of unconsciousness for Finnegan, but over the course of his wave-chasing years, it has turned into a crowded, commercialised spectacle. All those remote places to which he trekked in the 1970s are now thoroughly on the map. Even Tavarua, the empty island with the transparent, miraculous wave, is a commercial surf resort; da kine officially renamed, of all dismal things, “Restaurants”, for its proximity to the hotel bar.

Them’s the breaks, the consequence of mass tourism and a media infatuated with board style. All the same, the spell holds. Finnegan has not yet stopped surfing, though he is well into his sixties now. He’s still out chasing waves on Long Island, accompanied by a goofy-foot Broadway dancer. He’s less reckless, he says, but just as obsessed, just as capable of exultation as he was as a skinny boy, paddling out at Diamond Head to dance on water. 

“The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” by Olivia Laing will be published next year by Canongate

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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The NS Q&A: Naomi Alderman on Oprah, Ovid, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20."

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on a striped blue-and-white deckchair with a migraine. My mother gave me orange squash. We’ve worked out (from the deckchair) that I was 18 months old.

Who was your childhood hero?

I was incredibly inspired by Oprah Winfrey as a young woman. Her childhood (sexual and physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death of her baby) was traumatic, and her subsequent life has been defined by hard work, talent and one glorious victory after another. People in the UK can sneer about her because we are terrified of emotions and she’s not perfect (who is?), but she introduced me to the possibility of improving one’s internal life. A miracle.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s as if he managed to voyage back a few hundred years and just take notes.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Florence Nightingale, who was a terrible nurse but a brilliant statistician and wielded her public image to influence politicians to improve health care. I wish that she were still around, skewering ministers misusing statistics on Question Time.

When were you happiest?

Now. The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20. It has been slow, hard-won improvement since then.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ovid. Both are intensely serious, as well as funny. Both wield myths to talk about their modern world. Both are subjects I’d like to revise.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The future. As far as possible. Not to live, though – just to visit.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d like [the 16th-century Dutch painter] Jan van Scorel, please, with the same affection and knowingness as his portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven. They lived together and had six children, even though he was a canon and couldn’t marry.

What’s your theme tune?

A Jewish song that goes: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor . . .” It translates as: “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?

I know how this sounds, but my deceased grandmother appeared to me in a dream once and told me something I can’t share. But I did follow her advice and it was excellent. (Thanks, Booba and/or my subconscious.)

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. I want to start a campaign called “Back in 30” – to get us back into the EU by 2030, when Remainers (or Rejoiners) will almost certainly be a convincing majority.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish that Gordon Brown had called a snap election in 2007.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I think I would have enjoyed running a business (and I sort of do run one now, with the video games). I’ve got the brain for systems and a head for figures. But all these daydreams end with: “And I could carve out time to write.”

Are we all doomed?

No. The species will continue, whatever apocalypse we manage to unleash. It just won’t be much fun to live through.

Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power” (Penguin) is shortlisted for the Baileys Prize

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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