Aboard waves of change

Surf­ing tale is a free­wheel­ing an­ti­dote to the gloom of Trump’s Amer­ica

The Times (South Africa) - - BOOKS - Bar­bar­ian Days. Into the Wild Hawaii Five-O

WIL­LIAM Fin­negan tested the pa­tience of his pub­lisher in the 20 years it took him to write the re­mark­able mem­oir of his life­long ob­ses­sion with surf­ing,

“I gave up a cou­ple of times, but she al­ways be­lieved,” said Fin­negan.

His zen at­ti­tude paid off. The book has been heaped with awards in­clud­ing a Pulitzer prize and has be­come a ru­n­away best­seller, with for­mer US 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 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 eu­lo­gis­ing, 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

made. “I had vi­sions of peo­ple throw­ing the book across the room be­cause they couldn’t bear an­other de­scrip­tion of a wave,” he said.

“But peo­ple who’d never surfed in their lives told me they com­pletely went with it.” 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 true,” Fin­negan in­sists. Now 65, the distin­guished war cor­re­spon­dent 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.

“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 pro-war or anti-war. The ath­let­ics de­part­ments were prowar, and you pretty much couldn’t go out for sports if you weren’t for it.” —

COLD WAR: Wil­liam Fin­negan’s ‘Bar­bar­ian Days’ is a re­minder of how free and easy life could be in mid-cen­tury Amer­ica

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