BARBARIAN DAYS: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan. Penguin Press, 447 pp., $27.95.
William Finnegan was given a surfboard for his 11th birthday, and he spent much of the rest of his childhood on it, both in Southern California and Hawaii. He went to public schools in both areas, including a tough one in Hawaii that had a whites-only gang called The In Crowd. He started college at UC Santa Cruz, studied literature with Norman O. Brown, dropped out, surfed, tripped on acid, loved and lost his first serious girlfriend. The pair lived for a while in a car that belonged to a guy named Bryan Di Salvatore, whose essential supporting role in Finnegan's life is one of the key story lines of his new memoir, "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life."
"The first words I ever spoke to Bryan were, 'What are you doing with that book?,' " writes Finnegan. "He was crossing a post-office parking lot with 'Ulysses' in hand, and the familiar prongs of the big 'U' on the Random House paperback had caught my eye. We stood there in the sun talking about Joyce, and then the Beats, for an hour or two."
Thus begins a great friendship between two surfers, a group of people usually thought of as gnarly dudes rather than brainiac literati. As Finnegan's book demonstrates, some are both. A few years later, the author and Di Salvatore take a trip around the world and discover, off the coast of Fiji, an unknown wave soon to be recognized as one of the best on the planet. As they make their way from one exotic surf spot to the next, each is working on his first novel.
Upon returning home, both become regulars at The New Yorker, that mecca of intellectually sophisticated, finely written, entertaining but longer-than-necessary magazine articles. Finnegan brings all four of those qualities to his new memoir.
"Barbarian Days" demolishes the stereotype of the surfer as someone with "nothing but blue sky between his ears." While not all wave-riders read "Ulysses" or write for The New Yorker, they do, in Finnegan's telling, form a highly specialized breed of scientist-athletes. "The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell -- a longitudinal study, through season after season -- is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break."
What's a break, you may ask. It is one of many, many technical surfing terms you'll come to know by the end of this book without their ever actually having been defined. It's like an immersion course in a foreign language. Just let it flow over you. By the end, you'll have some idea what's going on.
Finnegan doesn't leave out the women in his life, but his romances are not as central as his male friendships. Before Di Salvatore came Bill Becket and Domenic Mastrippolito, and after him, a doctor/surfer, an illustrator/surfer and a dancer/surfer. Each relationship is forged in the shared obsession and annealed by the alternating boredom, bliss and near-death experiences that surfing entails.
A surfer from Oregon named Andre explains why "chicks" have such a tough time when they get involved with surfers. "'It's like if you or I hooked up with a fanatical shopper,' he said. . . . 'You'd have to accept that your entire life would be traveling around to malls. Or, really, more like waiting for malls to open.'"
How about reading a 447-page book on that topic? If anyone could make it work, it's the stylist and storyteller William Finnegan.