Breaking the Waves

Recently in the New Yorker, where he’s been a staff writer since 1987, William Finnegan published an article about artisan gold miners in the mountains of Peru. It begins in medias res, with Finnegan talking to one of his subjects: “Look, there are her eyes, her face, her arm, her hip,” a miner says, looking up at his mountain. “And when the snow melts, exposing more rock, the glacier turns into a skinny old hag called Awicha,” Finnegan replies. “Where the hell did you hear that?” the miner asks, and Finnegan tells us:

I’d heard it from a sociologist in Puno, down on the Peruvian altiplano. Really, I was just trying to buy time. I was out of breath, and the steep trail below us was full of miners, descending and ascending. I doubted my ability to join the traffic flow and keep up—down slippery rocks, through icy mud, between frozen piles of garbage. But the gold mines I had said I wanted to see were all down this trail, in the valley between town and glacier.

In the New Yorker this passage ran as a freestanding paragraph: eighty-five words, split into four concrete sentences, each one anchored by an “I.” But as the story progresses, Finnegan’s “I” becomes more of an eye for the reader to look through—a portal that never clouds over, or shrinks to the size of the author’s own ego, but expands, instead, to let in an entire alien world.

Finnegan’s fifth book, Barbarian Days, is his memoir; subtitled “A Surfing Life,” it begins with an “I” (“I had never thought of myself as a sheltered child”) and goes on to describe the author’s adventures in Hawaii, Fiji, and other exotic (and not-so-exotic) locales. But it, too, is selfless. Time and again, Finnegan describes waves that no sane or safety-minded surfer would ride. Not once does he give the impression that he’s doing anything unusual, or too far beyond the reader’s capabilities. As it progresses the whole book turns into a portal.

Finnegan begins in 1966, in Honolulu. He’s very young and, though he’s only just moved from the mainland, already a surfer. He gets in the water quickly enough, surfing Cliffs—“a patchwork arc of reefs that ran south and west for half a mile,” not far from his house—by page five. By then, the book’s tone is already set, with descriptions of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean kids in Hawaii, along with Filipinos, Samoans, Portuguese, native Hawaiians, and kids of mixed ethnic backgrounds; an outline of the ways these groups interacted; an overview of Hawaiian public schools (“impoverished, mired in colonial, plantation, and mission traditions”); a thumbnail portrait of Finnegan’s family; a sketch of the city’s topography; and, finally, a description of the waves themselves: “shifty but not intimidating,” with a clear view of coral at the bottom. This is a lot of information. But, like a good surfer, Finnegan makes difficult things look effortless.

Finnegan doesn’t stray far from the water. “Here’s how ridable waves form . . . ,” he tells us, simply. It is his true subject and through line as he curves back, to his earliest years in California, and then moves on to the world’s distant corners. “Harbor Mouth had a short, hollow right that got longer and more complicated as the surf got bigger and the takeoff moved farther out the reef,” he writes.

There was a deep spot from which a six-foot wave, caught early and ridden correctly, could nearly always be made, and I got to know where that was, even though it gave no visual clues. Harbor Mouth’s signal feature, though, its claim to whatever fame it had, was the end-section on the right (there were also longer, less shapely lefts, running away from the channel). It was a very short, thick, shallow, highly reliable chunk of wave that almost always stayed open. It you timed it right, that section was as close to a guaranteed barrel as any wave I’ve seen. Even at two feet, you could squeeze through it and come out dry.

The meticulous scene-setting—that parenthetical, which lets in just enough possibilities to provide a 360-degree view—and those switchbacks, at the end, from “you” to “I” and back again, are typical Finnegan. The slow rocking mimics the rhythms of surfing life, and though he wipes out repeatedly, cuts his feet on rocks, crashes his head on the sea wall or bottom, Finnegan never describes an injury serious enough to knock you out of the reverie. The constant recalibration of pressures in tone and perspective are in perfect mimetic alignment with surfing itself.

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (Deeper Above All), 2011, ink, gouache, and pen on paper, 69 1/2 × 84 1/2." Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

There are adventures on land—in Ethiopia, in the East Village, in South Africa, where Finnegan teaches for a while (the experience leaves him “mentally flayed”). There are moments of joy, which are rendered in short, declarative sentences. (“I had a glorious new girlfriend: Caroline.” “Being out in big surf is dreamlike. Terror and ecstasy ebb and flow around the edges of things, each threatening to overwhelm the dreamer.”) There are sharply drawn, sympathetic descriptions of other surfers. There are long sojourns in Madeira, and in San Francisco, where the waves are as good as the waters are freezing. There are brief, modest mentions of Finnegan’s work, which brings him into conflict zones, both here and abroad. (“I had spent that fall reporting on the civil war in Sudan. On days without waves, I sat at a card table in my room writing about Nile geopolitics, famine, slavery, political Islam, cattle-herding nomads, and my travels with Sudanese guerrillas in the liberated, terrifying South.”) There is the death of Finnegan’s parents, who are very alive in his telling, and the birth of his daughter, Mollie. As the book draws to a close, there is an account of surfing the waters in and around New York City, where Finnegan has finally settled. He is older now, though in typical fashion he describes the aging process by writing about someone else: a “goofyfoot” (left-footed) dancer named John Selya, who lives a few blocks away from Finnegan, on the Upper West Side. Selya is an excellent surfer, Finnegan tells us, “but when I compliment him on a wave well ridden he says things like, ‘Thanks. It was sweet. But I need more verticality.’”

This must be a dancer thing, Finnegan says.

“And a Jewish thing,” Selya says. “You gotta suffer.”

“But not, in his case, whine,” Finnegan writes. “Selya joyfully surfs junk waves that I wouldn’t consider leaving my desk for. He’s an old-fashioned craftsman—he works hard to make things look easy.”

Selya, a veteran of the American Ballet Theater, has moved on to Broadway; he’s got a lead role in Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel–themed musical, Movin’ Out. There is money, one guesses, and a fair bit of acclaim. Then Selya turns forty and the leading roles wither away. “He could still leap, and lift and catch his partners, and perform as well as he ever had, he said,” Finnegan writes. “But younger faces, younger bodies, were preferred. . . . He channeled his fury into surfing.”

Finnegan ends the book on Selya’s board, having broken his own in the surf. He’s in his sixties now, in Fiji, surfing carelessly, crashing, coughing up blood. A few pages earlier, he’s described the ways in which he’s grown reckless:

In Dubai, chasing a story about human trafficking, I stepped on the toes of Uzbek slavers and their local protectors and had to leave the emirate in a hurry. Reporting on organized crime in Mexico, I edged farther into the lion’s den than I should have. This was the sort of work I had sworn off when Mollie was born. The same impulses were showing up in my surfing. I went to Oaxaca to ride Puerto Escondido, which is generally considered the heaviest beachbreak in the world. I snapped two boards and came home with a perforated eardrum. I wasn’t turning into a big-wave surfer—I would never have the nerves for that—but I was pushing into places where I did not belong. On the bigger days at Puerto, I was the oldest guy in the water by decades.

What did I think I was doing?

This is the one point in the book where Finnegan directly compares his life as a reporter to his surfing life; the one place where the dangers he’s faced overlap. But now, instead of pressing the matter, he leaves off with an act of ego negation. Out on the water, still coughing up blood, Finnegan insists that he wants to keep surfing. “I could paddle,” he writes. “I felt fine except for a headache and the urge to cough.” But his judgment is shot, and he gives himself over to a younger man—Inia—who tells him which waves to catch and which ones to let pass.

“And so it went,” Finnegan writes. “Inia called me off some waves, called me into others, and he never got it wrong. I couldn’t understand what he was seeing, couldn’t see the distinctions he was making. It was a supreme demonstration of local wave knowledge.”

It’s tempting to say that Barbarian Days will bring readers as close as they’ll get to the surf, short of actual surfing. But I had a stronger reaction: The book brought me closer than I’d ever been, or expected to get, to the real, unfathomable ocean.

Alex Abramovich last wrote for Bookforum about Russian prison memoirs.