Surf epic is es­capist best­seller for Trump's Amer­ica

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Wil­liam Fin­negan tested the pa­tience of his pub­lisher in the 20 years it took him to write his re­mark­able mem­oir of his life­long ob­ses­sion with surf­ing, "Bar­bar­ian Days". "I gave up a cou­ple of times, but she al­ways be­lieved," the la­conic Amer­i­can writer told AFP. Her zen at­ti­tude paid off. The book has been heaped with awards in­clud­ing a Pulitzer prize and be­come a ru­n­away best­seller, with for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama among its many fans. The New York Times called it a clas­sic, the "finest surf book ever"— and up there with Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" as an ac­count of what hap­pens when "ideas of free­dom and pu­rity take hold of a young mind and fling his body out into the far reaches of the world".

Fin­negan's youth­ful odyssey "as a weird fron­tier guy" in search of the per­fect wave took him from the Los An­ge­les sub­urbs to the jun­gles of Java and apartheid South Africa, sur­viv­ing on his wits and the kind­ness of strangers. Sports Il­lus­trated, not nor­mally prone to lit­er­ary eu­lo­giz­ing, de­clared that "read­ing this guy... on waves and wa­ter is like read­ing Hem­ing­way on bull­fight­ing, Wil­liam Bur­roughs on con­trolled sub­stances and Updike on adul­tery." Such praise sur­prised no one more than Fin­negan, who spent his child­hood be­tween the beaches of Cal­i­for­nia and Hawaii, where his father worked as a pro­ducer and union fixer twist­ing arms to get tele­vi­sion se­ries like "Hawaii Five-O" made. "I had vi­sions of peo­ple throw­ing the book across the room be­cause they couldn't bear an­other de­scrip­tion of a wave," he told AFP. "But peo­ple who'd never surfed in their lives told me they com­pletely went with it."

'Surf­ing was my se­cret'

Still more were taken with his limpid style and lightly worn sea lore, such as how an­cient Poly­ne­sian mariners nav­i­gated not only by the stars but by dip­ping their tes­ti­cles in the briny. "Strange but ab­so­lutely true," Fin­negan in­sists. Now 65, the distin­guished war cor­re­spon­dent and New Yorker mag­a­zine jour­nal­ist had kept quiet about his surf­ing side "un­til well into mid­dle age", know­ing that his years as a surf bum-a species not renowned for their in­tel­lec­tual acu­ity-might sit awk­wardly with his writerly am­bi­tions. "Most peo­ple didn't know I surfed. It was a huge part of my life but it wasn't how I saw my­self. It was a se­cret."

Be­yond this com­ing-out nar­ra­tive, the book is also a re­minder of how free and easy life could be in mid-cen­tury Amer­ica, where chil­dren were not wrapped in the same shack­les of parental con­cern they are now. "It was a his­tor­i­cal mo­ment where the kids were off on their bikes all day long and no­body ever thought twice about it," Fin­negan said.

'Lost boy'

"I had hitch­hiked the length of Cal­i­for­nia by the time I was 15. I was do­ing the same thing on the East Coast at 16 and I first came to Europe on my own at 17. "My par­ents didn't know where I was for months on end." Fin­negan said he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to ride the wave of 1960s lib­er­a­tion to the full. "I had lots of ad­ven­tures and I sur­vived. Not ev­ery­body came through so smoothly be­tween drugs and gen­eral risk tak­ing," he said.

"It would never have hap­pened 10 years later, and these days you can for­get it. Peo­ple just don't let their kids out of their sight." That said, Fin­negan ad­mit­ted that "a lot of my com­pul­sions were driven by a lost boy feel­ing. I left my fam­ily too young. I kept try­ing to re­con­sti­tute my fam­ily else­where." In­deed he re­counts his re­la­tion­ships with other surfers al­most as oth­ers would love af­fairs, each in­ti­mately at­tached to the sea and the waves they rode to­gether.

Part of the book's pop­u­lar­ity he be­lieves may be down to the fact that its blast of es­capist ozone is an an­ti­dote to "grow­ing dread and gloom" of Don­ald Trump's Amer­ica. "It ex­ists out­side this in­creas­ing dark­ness. Peo­ple read it as say­ing life was bet­ter, the coun­try was bet­ter, pol­i­tics were bet­ter. How­ever, Fin­negan in­sists that the US was just as di­vided dur­ing the Viet­nam War. "I was in high school then and it was full blown cul­ture wars. You were ei­ther prowar or anti-war. The ath­let­ics de­part­ments were pro-war, and you pretty much couldn't go out for sports if you weren't for it." — AFP

US writer and 2016 Pulitzer prize win­ner Wil­liam Fin­negan. — AFP

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