PARIS (AFP) – William Finnegan tested the patience of his publisher in the 20 years it took him to write his remarkable memoir of his lifelong obsession with surfing, “Barbarian Days”.
“I gave up a couple of times, but she always believed,” said the laconic American writer.
Her zen attitude paid off. The book has been heaped with awards including a Pulitzer prize and become a runaway bestseller, with former 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 “Into the Wild” 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 “Hawaii Five-O” 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 absolutely true,” Flanagan insists. Now 65, the distinguished war correspondent and New Yorker magazine journalist had kept quiet about his surfing side “until well into middle age”, knowing that his years as a surf bum – a species not renowned for their intellectual acuity – might sit awkwardly with his writerly ambitions.
“Most people didn’t know I surfed. It 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 an historical moment where the kids were off on their bikes all day long and nobody ever thought twice about it,” Finnegan said.
“I had hitch-hiked the length of California by the time I was 15.
“I was doing the same thing on the East Coast at 16 and I f
irst 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 the “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, Flanagan 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 pro-war, and you pretty much couldn’t go out for sports if you weren’t for it.”