No matter what we tell ourselves, we all secretly want to live forever. It follows that a good memoir serves as vicarious life extension, toward this eternally minded, unachievable end. A glimpse into an alternate possibility. Between the pages unfolds what could’ve been — if. If we were born at a different time. If we had different circumstances. If we had different interests. If we were altogether different people through any number of natural or nurtural deviations against our norm.
I’ve long been obsessed with those whose lives are lived on the rough and ragged edges of society. The way in which William Finnegan splits his time between war correspondence and surfing — two extreme lifestyles on their own, together in one individual — was properly interesting. His clean prose and serious storytelling chops certainly didn’t hurt either. There’s a very good reason this book won him a Pulitzer.
Throughout his childhood in Hawaii, he didn’t fit. An outsider, ethnically and socially. As a child his whole personality seemed to ricochet off of the locale, grasping at a world filled with violence for a handhold to guide him. The time period in which he came of age added to his dissociation among his peers. Eventually he found surfing as a wild, violent, introverted escape from his lack of acceptance. It held just enough of a loner mentality to capture those with similar social needs. This conglomeration of loners he met while chasing waves became his friends; a tertiary social net composed of outcasts.
“We were fellow skeptics—rationalists, readers of books in a world of addled, inane mystics.”
He describes surfing as “a consuming, physically exhausting, joy-drenched reason to live”. One that had a “vaguely outlaw uselessness” that “neatly expressed one’s disaffection.” Who doesn’t want something like that in their life? It’s the reason people free climb, skateboard, race motorcycles, and spend time in the woods, running themselves to exhaustion. It’s why marathons are a thing, bull-fighting, spelunking.
Throughout Barbarian days, Finnegan contrasts the intensity of a life spent surfing, with that of a life spent chasing stories across war-torn countries. These are the divisions that comprise his whole. He sees himself as a man who needs to chase danger, and can only relax after having exhausted that part of himself. I can relate to a tiny degree. He can only be calm when he has faced his intense, possible death. I can only truly rest when I’ve exhausted my dual needs for effective productivity and creative endeavor. I need to see evidence of my existence in the world or I can never be still.
Eventually he would settle down: marriage, children, home ownership, and moving to New York City did indeed soften him somewhat, but the fire at his core was never extinguished. It only sat at a simmer, waiting to be flooded with the particular brand of fuel needed to burn up the excess energy of his life.
After writing up a report of those around him — including other reporters — dying in the act of journaling the insanity they were embedded in, he would surf. Every chance he got, he would surf. The fervor with which he expressed his desire to surf, was never repetitive. Surfing, it seems, is part addiction, part meditation. A calming obsession for the soul.
Being not remotely interested in surfing, or living that kind of life, I was still fascinated to see the myriad ways something I had previously thought extremely repetitious — the act of waiting for a wave, catching it, riding it back to shore, again and again — was instead full of rapturous intrigue, and a kind of fascination that I had not previously known associated with any sort of sport.
My favorite parts of this book, again having no interest in surfing myself, were the human moments between surfing sessions. The characters that populate this memoir, were so interesting, simply because they weren’t normal people. They live intense, chaotic lives, left of center, unstable, but full of passion. Something most of our stable, silly lives could use a lot more of.
A life in vans, sleeping on beaches, running from cops, defrauding American Express to pay for hospitalization due to malaria. These are wild lives. People who thrive only through chasing death, and therefore have a better grasp on what a good life might entail. Things most of us are far too cowardly to do ourselves—or I am at least.
“If this was a religion, perhaps it didn’t bear thinking about what was being worshipped.”
A particularly touching moment in Barbarian Days is when William asks his wife why she never gets angry about all of the “stupid risky things” he does. She responds that she simply assumed he needed to do them. “When things get bad, I think you get very calm,” she says. “I trust your judgment.” It’s such a tender moment that illuminates a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.
They all seem like intense people, even the girlfriends of his youth and his eventual wife. Artist to lawyer is not a normal career path to follow, but it makes sense for her. It shows an intensity in all things. A life full of passion. And who doesn’t want to read about passionate people?