Book Review: William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days

Barbarian Days by William FinneganWilliam Finnegan, a staff writer for The New Yorker, doesn’t really need my help in spreading the word about his book “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” but I’ll give him a boost anyway. His memoir won the Pulitzer and is a New York Times bestseller, and it is an excellent read that can be summed up in four words: Bromances I have known.

Said bromances are told through the lens of the sport of surfing, which, as advertisers would like to tell you, is a lifestyle, and for true surfers it is. Finnegan writes about his relationship with surfing by examining close relationships he’s had with male friends over the years, from youth to middle age. He has befriended highly intelligent bros who have shared his adventurous life that has taken him around the world to places such as Indonesia, Fiji and South Africa before he got serious about writing and settled down to become a professional in San Francisco and later New York.

Finnegan dissects the character of his friends and defines himself in relation to them throughout the book. While he has excellent powers of analysis and writing skills as he portrays the various characters in his life story, what struck me the most in this book is the courage required of his peripatetic lifestyle. These days, it’s easy to travel. You could throw a dart on a map and find a way to get to where it lands and a place to stay there by doing some research on the internet, and you can get around in a foreign country with a travel guide book and Google translate. Don’t get me wrong: It still takes courage to travel and live abroad, but this guy did it with much less resources than are available to us now. In places where the natives didn’t speak English, he managed to learn their language while living among them. That’s not just risk-taking and bravery; it’s a whole lot of brains. My hats off to the guy. He traveled the world bare bones, with nautical charts to find waves and a stack of New Yorkers to keep him company, along with a good bro.

The whole book is sepia toned with the romance of surfing, but his recollections about his struggles during the different stages of his life are honest and relatable. He writes a noble and raw love letter to the sport, and he’s still chasing challenging waves.