“Barbarian Days”: Writer and Surfer William Finnegan’s Self Portrait of His Life in Salt

by Owen James Burke

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“To be thirteen, with a surfboard, in Hawaii.” Photograph: New Yorker/William R. Finnegan.

Lifelong surfer, writer and wartime reporter William Finnegan was 13 years old when his family packed up their Ventura, California digs in the mid-1960s for the surf mecca of Honolulu, Hawaii.

“The budget for moving our family to Honolulu was tight,” recalls the New Yorker staff writer in his upcoming memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, “judging from the tiny cottage we rented and the rusted-out Ford Fairlane we bought to get around.”

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“At Waikiki, 1967: Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration.” Photograph: New Yorker/William R. Finnegan.

An adolescent haole (that is, someone of European descent, excluding Portuguese) in Hawaii, Finnegan learns he’s now a minority, and he’ll have to navigate through unfamiliar social constructs.

In the water, things were different. Finnegan would surf before school in the mornings, and after some brief hazing, soon became anointed with the locals at the surf break in front of his house. The friends he made in the water would become his most trusted confidants, and while his family went to church and his caucasian peers continued along with their high and mighty antics, Finnegan found himself enraptured by the sea:

“I did not consider, even in passing, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it chose.”

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Read Finnegan’s piece on his early days of surfing in Hawaii in The New Yorker, and Preorder Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life here. We’ll be reviewing it as soon as it’s out. -OJB

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