Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan

I don’t think of myself as being especially sympathetic to selfish or clueless young men, even though I certainly was one myself not very long ago. But when both Heather and I read William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, I realized I might be more susceptible than I thought.

Finnegan is clearly an excellent prose stylist, and his stories of growing up in Hawai’i and Southern California, learning to surf, and coming of age in the sixties are fascinating. He doesn’t shy away from describing his numerous mistakes, or try to polish away the fact that he seems to have been an exceptionally self-centered, directionless surf bro well into his mid-thirties.

But while I found it charming that he didn’t pull those punches, Heather found him incredibly irritating. She still loved it because she’s a SoCal surfer herself and because Finnegan has clearly lived an interesting life. But she found his almost comically Freudian view of what Surfing Ought to Be (hint: obsessively dedicated men risking their lives unnecessarily) to be elitist and pretentious.

The back of the ARC notes that the marketing campaign will include special outreach to surf shops, which makes perfect sense. Surfers, even if they don’t agree with all of Finnegan’s views on surfing, will love this book. Nonsurfers (I’m one) will like the honest descriptions of a young man trying to manage the literal and figurative waves of the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone who’s ever seen a favorite thing become a trend will recognize Finnegan’s reluctance to admit that the sport he took up as an outsider is now thoroughly co-opted by The Man.

But reading this book mostly makes me wish I’d read his other books first – the prize-winning nonfiction about South Africa, Mozambique, and depressed pockets of the US. I’ve got a hunch that I’ll wind up recommending those over his memoir.

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