Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

I spent way too much time reading this book but I’m a sucker for adventure travel books, especially when they combine lyrical descriptions of surfing/beaches/the sea. I’m sad to see that this won a Pulitzer, since it’s a fairly uneven book. If Finnegan had stuck to writing about surfing, he would have earned that prize fully, but he veers into the danger zone when he starts blathering sexist comments about the ladies he’s encountered. He doesn’t know that he’s being terrible, laying himself bare with eye-popping statements. The utter cluelessness yet confidence of white males will never cease to amaze me. One of  many examples: he breaks into an all-women commune in Australia to search for a girl and has the cops called on him.

Unlike most negative reviews I issue here, I won’t obsessively catalog the flaws of this book, since it was buoyed by its positive aspects. I will mention a few: a phrase that should never be used— “pursing his own PhD in having fun;” the time a woman lets him know that his endless chatter about surfing is mindlessly boring, she’s “rudely interrupting;” his pretentious lit-talk discussing “the decadence of Sartre and situationism;” his goal go “sleep with women from many lands” being cruelly foiled by the prudishness of the Tahitian women— “I did not want to leave someone else weeping. Neither did I want to get my ass kicked by her uncles.”

The good parts are the surfing parts and luckily that’s most of the book. He takes up surfing early as a kid in LA, then his family moves to Oahu where he surfs, then he ditches UC-SantaCruz to surf some more, then a quasi-round-the-world surf trip for 4 years where he finds many occasions to be an asshole surf tourist somewhat aware of his privileges but pushing on regardless (and years later having regrets about not paying the family that they imposed on for many weeks, instead giving them worthless trinkets).

Really interesting section about surfing San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the 1980s. Apparently there were pedestrian tunnels under Great Highway—now you’ve got to scurry across the road like a chicken. The surfing sections are where his descriptive powers excel and all the cultural bullshit he’s caught up in unawares fades away. He moves to NYC and surfs there, finds a buddy who convinces him to surf Madeira in Portugal before it gets modernized (they actually destroy the surf by building a seawall for some reason).

If you’re an old white man, you’ll probably enjoy this book 100%. Everyone else might register at 85% or less as you see what types of adventures are possible if you were a white male growing up in the 1960s.