Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

[ed. I can't recommend this book highly enough (it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for autobiography). See also: this excerpt - Off Diamond Head.] 

In his new book, the New Yorker staff writer and veteran war reporter William Finnegan demonstrates the advantages of keeping meticulous mental maps. For him, memorizing a place is a matter of nostalgia, of metaphysical well-being, but also of life and death. Finnegan’s memoir is not about his professional life reporting on blood-soaked Sudan or Bosnia or Nicaragua; it’s about the “disabling enchantment” that is his lifelong hobby.

“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…is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break,” he writes in Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Surfers, like children, naturally develop sensory affinity for their surroundings: they can detect minor changes in the smell of the sea, track daily the rise and fall of sandbars, are grateful for particularly sturdy roots onto which they can grab when scurrying down bluffs. The environment becomes an almost anatomical extension of them, mostly because it has to.

Unlike football or baseball or even boxing, surfing is a literarily impoverished sport. The reasons for this are practical. It’s not a spectator sport: it is hard to see surfers from the shore. That the best waves are seldom anywhere near civilization makes it an activity especially resistant to journalism, and first-rate writing by surfers is also rare: the impulse to surf—a “special brand of monomania,” Finnegan calls it—is at direct odds with the indoor obligations of writing.

In many ways this is true for any athletic activity—that its very best practitioners will very seldom be the same people who document it—but it’s particularly true of surfing, which demands more traveling, logistical planning, and waiting around than any other athletic endeavor. Even when surfers are not surfing, they’re thinking about it: listening to buoy reports, peering off cliffs with binoculars, preventing themselves from buying new boards.

Though middle school students have worn surfwear-branded clothing for decades now and surfing has become increasingly popular among the billionaires of Santa Clara County, it remains an elusive pastime in the minds of most everyone who has never done it. The reasons for this too are practical. Appropriate beaches are rare; high schools don’t have teams; and while not as prohibitively expensive as skiing, surfing requires roughly the same amount of cumbersome gear and is, if possible, even more physically uncomfortable. There are the damp, mildewed wetsuits; the feet cut by coral; the sunburns and the salt-stung eyes. Pair all this with the specter of Jeff Spicoli (the surfer and pot smoker played by Sean Penn in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and the easy-to-imitate accent, and you have a hobby that is easy to mock, if not ignore. It’s certainly not a pastime anyone associates with ambition or mental agility.

Which is precisely what makes the propulsive precision of Finnegan’s writing so surprising and revelatory. For over half a century at this point, readers have taken it as a given (and writers as a professional prerogative) that lowbrow culture is deserving of bookish analysis. But unlike so many writhing attempts to extort meaning from topics that seem intellectually bankrupt, Finnegan’s treatment of surfing never feels like performance. Through the sheer intensity of his descriptive powers and the undeniable ways in which surfing has shaped his life, Barbarian Days is an utterly convincing study in the joy of treating seriously an unserious thing.

“Getting a spot wired—truly understanding it—can take years,” Finnegan writes, continuing, later, to say that “all surfers are oceanographers.” Over the course of a life spent in and out of the water, he has amassed a truly staggering amount of applied knowledge, of marine biology and carpentry and cartography. Surfing requires kinetic intuition, physical fitness, and courage in the face of an indifferent force, but it also demands the sort of mental work we don’t typically associate with extreme sports. Any good writing about an underexamined way of life must be, at least at times, expository, and Finnegan is lucid when it comes to the necessary task of explaining to the uninitiated some of the most basic tenets of surfing: why waves break where they do; how it’s possible to stand on a floating piece of fiberglass, go into a moving tube of water, and emerge looking just as you did upon entry. But despite all this, surfing, as Finnegan renders it, is more than just a fun physical activity: it’s a way of being in the world, with its own private politics and etiquette and benchmarks of success. (...)

It can also be a backdrop to a unique brand of companionship—among men, specifically, which, unlike female friendship, is not often tackled in books. The adoration with which Finnegan writes about his fellow surfers is of a sort usually seen only in soldiers’ memoirs. Bill was “aggressively relaxed—the essential California oxymoron.” Glenn “moved with unusual elegance.” Finnegan writes that “chasing waves remains for me a proximate cause of vivid friendships.” That they are often forged despite unpleasant obstacles (tropical diseases, food poisoning, near drowning) adds a kinetic dimension to what would otherwise be merely interior, emotional dynamics. And as Finnegan admits, “male egos were always subtly, or otherwise, on the line.”

Reputations are made and maintained in the ocean, but they’re premised on more than just talent. Seniority, humility, pain tolerance, and a hundred other factors contribute to a surfer’s local eminence. Speech patterns are just one of the outward signs of the insular social order that attends the sport. Surfers speak in a vivid vernacular: a mix of esoteric oceanographic detail and play-by-play narration expressed in slang. Finnegan is, of course, fluent—in it but also in the language of literature. The adjectives he attributes to waves are alternately the kind one might find in a contemporary novel—hideous, boiling, miraculous, malignant, mechanical—and the sort overheard in rusted-out pickup trucks—rifling, peaky, shifty, hairy, meaty, stupid. On the elemental aspects of surfing, Finnegan is especially capable of coming up with phrases that are at once poetic and concrete. Though “surfers have a perfection fetish…. Waves are not stationary objects in nature like roses or diamonds.” They are, instead, at once “the object of your deepest desire and adoration” but also “your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.” Riding them is “the theoretical solution to an impossibly complex problem.”

by Alice Gregory, NY Review of Books |  Read more:
Image: Donald Miralle/Getty Images/NY Times