William Finnegan combines several genres in Barbarian Days, despite its subtitle of A Surfing Life. It’s part discussion of surfing theory, combined with travelogue, buddy road trip, and memoir. Finnegan covers a lot of his life, starting in his pre-teen years and ending in his 50s. Through it all, surfing is the one constant.

Finnegan introduces plenty of surfing spots, both common and thoroughly obscure. His eloquent descriptions verbally transported me. If you want to travel to isolated beaches all over the world, this part of the book will thrill you. And despite my utter lack of experience in surfing, I enjoyed hearing its details from Finnegan. His audiobook narration took me onto his board and beaches.

The memoir is a strong example of male friendships, since Finnegan hangs with a varied crew of surf buddies. His girlfriends spend time adjacent to surfing, but he never dates a surfing woman. Instead, he travels the world with a few different close male friends.

He explains the “fish story” aspects of describing waves. Only it’s reversed. Even the largest waves are smaller in the retelling. Unless the wave is massive … then you tell the truth.

I also appreciated hearing how Finnegan’s writing life progresses from journals to novels to journalism. And how he begins to connect with the causes he’s now championed for decades.

Dip Your Toes into Finnegan’s Writing

“I was getting interested in self-transformation. I was straining to understand the worldview of the islanders whom we moved and lived among—and I had been doing so since before Guam, when I let myself sink deep into the coral-pebble speed-checkers subworld around the sakau bowl in Pohnpei. I had come here to learn, I figured, and not just a few things about some far-flung places and people. I wanted to learn new ways to be. I wanted to change, to feel less existentially alienated, to feel more at home in my skin, as they say, and in the world.”

“Being adjacent to that much beauty—more than adjacent; immersed in, pierced by it—was the point. The physical risks were footnotes.”

My conclusions

I understand why Barbarian Days shows up on so many “best memoir” lists. Finnegan is a refined writer talking about a decidedly unrefined life. And that’s the joy of this book. Through all the ups and downs of travel, surfing, relationships, and career, Finnegan invites us in and bares his soul.

Sometimes the amount of detail threatened to pull me under. But just then, Finnegan started a set of bubbles leading to the surface and a new topic. He’s masterful in his ability to alternately drown you and lift you so fully into his experience that it seems like you’re on the wave too.

This is a unique memoir, and worth the praise. But be prepared to settle in for some long paddles out before the roar of the wave takes you.