I have no rational reply to why I have always been fascinated by surfers. I love to look at the ocean, but it takes a village to get me in one. Riptides scare the hell out of me, and I exhale great relief when my kids emerge wet but unscathed. I guess it began when I saw Gidget every Saturday for 52 straight weeks when I was a young girl (and later shared it all over again with my equally obsessed daughter). Even then, while I fantasized that Moondoggie would serenade me, and Kahuna would counsel me, I never begged my parents to get me one of those boards. Sure I liked The Beach Boys and "Surfer Girl" was a cool slow dance. But I knew I would never be one.
Still, the fascination with others who spent their early mornings shooting the curl endured. One of my favorite documentaries is Riding Giants, which tells the tales of three surfers who were pioneers at very different times. And, right now, I am reading William Finnegan's critically praised new book entitled Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life. I assumed I would have to hide it from my East Coast friends, who think if a book isn't written by a 28-year old brooding brunette from Brooklyn, it can't be important. When this one emerged quickly on the Los Angeles Times' best-seller list, they all laughed. "Well sure, out there..."
Lo and behold, now Barbarian Days is on The New York Times list as well. Obviously, I am not the only one who can't get enough of a scene and mentality that could not be further from my own. One might compare it to Andre Agassi's autobiography, which appealed even to those who wouldn't know a double fault from a double play. But that one wasn't so much about the sport as a boy's rebellion against an overbearing parent, and his falling out of love with the thing that made him famous.
Finnegan's book is unapologetically about surfing and how it often dictated his life. It obviously strikes some kind of nerve, maybe even a bit or envy. "Surfing is a culture that seems to represent complete freedom and non-conformity," says Dave White, a Malibu realtor who has been riding the waves since he was 10 (at least four decades). "My doctors tell me that I have five disks in my back that could use surgery," he says, "but then I wouldn't be able to surf again. I'm not willing to give it up." His wife, Lorna, still recalls how Dave made them stay in Kauai an extra day because he heard the swells were going to be great. They were great, all right, but so was the major hurricane that arrived and tore apart the island, leaving them unable to get home for a week.
William Finnegan says he has been pleasantly surprised and thrilled with the reaction to his book, especially because it was a challenge to appeal to hard-core surfers and non-surfers alike. "I've heard reviewers and readers say this book isn't really about surfing," he says, "it's about men, or about obsession. Others say it is a memoir and still others call it long-form reporting. I guess it's all of the above."
The language of the book does not condescend or over-explain. You either go with the oceanic flow of the lovely language, or you don't. Passages like, "this was a track that led away from citizenship toward a scratched-out frontier. Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement."
There is something in there obviously very tempting, yet out of reach. The great majority of us will never be surf bums. But hey, we can dream.