a brief review of “Barbarian Days” And other New Yorker writers who’ve written sports memoirs


  • BD=Barbarian Days
  • WF= William Finnegan

In BD, WF holds onto identifiers, keeping some, losing others on his globetrotting surf cruise. Even in microcosm, a memoir is about growing up and WF suffers no want of the pathways taken, or, in some cases, sluiced into, towards becoming the accomplished journeyman journalist and surfer he is now. For, that’s where this genre ends, right? Some sort of acceptance of “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” is the natural end of these stories. In WF’s case, enough time (hence the title) has passed, allowing him the comfort of to recall what waves went where and how he and his myriad encounters surfing engendered.

He does not lack for tales or persons of interest, but it’s when he’s waxing (in the literary sense) that his writing assumes a poignant and rich touch. Of course, one need only hear of Tavarua in the ‘70s and our collective hearts reel, ankles burning for a quick switch cutback. WF makes a good case for the barbed envy that undergirds surfing. No amount of marketing or cannabis haze can mask the fact that the sport is intelligibly competing in the ways that baseball or hockey are only pre-organized to be. Whether fighting the weather, the ocean’s mood that day, one’s common sense, or, plainly, other surfers, the sport is a battle of keeping oneself pointed in the right direction, so to speak.

One would think it is the job of a journalist to make anyone sound and seem interesting. Perhaps, for that matter, does WF wont not for characters. It is enviable to not have lived his childhood, traveled his travels, loved his loves. Young as I am, it is my crutch to think of my life in sun-speckled hues. As it can be; I felt a vacancy while reading and discussing this book — nowhere near having lived a filling life to report on what I was.

Like so much of popular culture today, surfing was something aped from an unsuspecting minority. In fact, surfing can claim to be the one sport Americans tried to abolish, before catechizing it. In a hee-haw turn of events, the sport befit the American sinners and alt-folk who would cultivate it’s cool, it’s anti-establishmentarian streaks without a sidelong glance to its colonial Hawaii roots. I claim no credence. We are a complicated bunch of kooks, indeed.

In a shotgun review of the book, in the midst of an Indian Summer in Brooklyn, I described BD as such:

An accomplished war journalist, Finnegan recently said that he was reluctant to come out the closet as a surfer. But big waves are everywhere in Finnegan’s life. In “Barbarian Days,” he describes his childhood in California and Hawaii and his adventures in Polynesia and Fiji — each told with a quicksilver glint rich in detail. All of it pivots around surfing, of course. Without shame or “lame cats,” as he prescribed diminutive swells, Finnegan illustrates the thrills of the sport and a lifetime of surfing.

It is a book, that when read while subway surfing (in and of itself, inane and ironic), does one ache for escape; for the backward glance toward oncoming peaks and swells. The sport hagiography accumulates dull and heavily-papered tomes without end, each according to its respective sporting season. Apropos of itself, sports writing can be a game of literal inside baseball, to use the term. It’s interesting, but mainly to those who would perhaps already find say, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s snooker travails interesting.

Then there are books such as William Maxwell’s “The Sweet Science” which occupy a second category. Despite being from two New Yorker staffers of some overlap, Maxwell’s book’s main cargo is the homosexual subtext as it pertains to masculinity, friendship, and the bare-chested enterprise of boxing, athletics, and how it could shade in the edges of its notoriously private author. Ring Lardner, a brief contributor to the same magazine during his brief life is opposite: A snappy storyteller whose voice hasn’t quite left the narrative tone of baseball, akin to something impermanent: Of, say, what the godhead of sports figuratively sounds like.

Yet, WF isn’t quite a writer like the two aforementioned. Nor is he as cosmic in scope (though analytically they perhaps share some legroom) as DFW. The latter adored Roger Federer, who, from the bleachers at Arthur Ashe was, from that distance, an ideal empathetic being: A pro and a pastime. No, BD is somewhere in orbit around these authors; another point in the constellation of untypical sports writing, of memoir, of words which form worlds we are invited into and offered accompanying seats to watch such spectacle.