William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days, is about surfing and anyone who says otherwise has their head up their ass. About seventy percent of this hefty book’s 447 pages are dedicated to surfing—and to making it digestible for a general audience. I have little doubt that the passages in Barbarian Days are some of the finest writing, in English or otherwise, about surfing. And I think that this fine writing is born out of the author’s love for his subject matter.
One of the aspects I appreciated, in comparison to another of my favorite memoirs, My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, is that Finnegan’s story is centered around surfing rather than family or shame. Knausgaard’s writing—which I consider to be a younger, perhaps better version of Finnegan’s—is ultimately aimless in its structure and that is precisely why it is so great. My Struggle places the ephemeral, messy, shameful memories of life at the forefront, remembered as honestly as possible by the author. Knausgaard’s writing isn’t a chronological account of events, but rather a wild journey across time, from childhood to late adulthood, to teenage years, to early twenties, to mid-thirties, to childhood again. Like real memories, that come flooding back with random, mundane triggers or smells, Knausgaard’s writing surprises us and makes us remember what we forgot we had forgotten. Knausgaard’s writing ultimately touches on the similarity of human lives, and reminds us that, despite our ages, whether we live in Norway or Spain or Sweden or Fiji or the United States, our lives are often the same.
But Finnegan is different. His writing has a structure that maybe goes unappreciated at first glance. The book’s title is no coincidence. His first few chapters recall his childhood in California and Hawaii, and are largely about his time fighting and learning to surf. One of the most memorable moments in the book is when he is challenged by a Hawaiian family of sons simply because he is a haole: an outsider, a foreigner, a non-Polynesian. They send their smallest, weakest, youngest brother to fight him and, when young Billy bests him, the next day they send the second smallest, weakest, youngest brother. And they would incrementally increase the difficulty setting—if you will—until he would get beaten. The fighting and the feeling of being an outsider—literally what ‘barbarian’ means—set the pace for the book, and Finnegan never looked back.
Finnegan writes in a chronological style, from his childhood in Hawaii through his teenage years in California, through his years working on a railroad and saving money, moving to Montana and getting his MFA, and traveling with his friend Bryan around the South Pacific chasing waves. He surfed some of the biggest waves in Hawaii, California, Fiji, Thailand, Portugal, Africa, and more. Until he eventually wound up in South Africa, teaching at an all-black high school during apartheid. Witnessing his students and colleagues take to the streets in protest inspired his first book and his interest in political journalism, which eventually took him back to California at age thirty, to live with his parents until he was able to get his freelancing career started. He became a staff writer for the New Yorker in 1987, winning several awards for his journalism before eventually “coming out” as a surfer and writing this amazing memoir. I was pleased and unsurprised when I heard it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
And yet, despite my love for the stories and the structure in Barbarian Days, I still feel like I don’t know the author despite having walked several hundred pages in his shoes. And maybe that was the point. Maybe Finnegan’s intention wasn’t to expose himself and his life, but rather to tell an artful story about his passion and weave it alongside the relevant stories of his life. Once again, I’m comparing the book to My Struggle and Knausgaard. I suppose they are similar and different—two vastly different ways to tell one’s life story, despite their similarities on the surface. Five stars for Barbarian Days. And I’m still waiting on Don Bartlett’s English translation of the sixth and final volume of Knausgaard’s memoir which cannot come out soon enough.