Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
Joni Sternbach: Surf Site Tin Type
April Watson; Chris Malloy; Lyle Rexer; Johnny Abegg
192 pp., 195.12
Finnegan's Waves and Sternbach's Riders
I was thirsty so I drank
And though it was salt water
There was something 'bout the way
It tasted so familiar
—Josh Ritter, "Change of Time"
I read most of William Finnegan's Barbarian Days during a few late weeknight evenings. After I extricated myself from the book each night, I lay awake in bed, sleep stalled by lingering adrenaline. While reading, I felt something not unlike the "desperate exultation" that rushed through Finnegan when a few blurry photographs awakened his memory of a glory day at a remote East Atlantic point break. And the book's aftereffect mirrored a sensation I've had at night after surfing six hours in solid waves. After days like that I've lain awake awhile, nervous system gently pinging. When my eyes closed, the bed would roll under me, undulating in sync with the swells I had spent all day chasing, riding, dodging, and, above all, desiring.
Surfing, inexactly called a sport, is more an obsession, an addiction. Surfing dislocates its devotees, reorienting their lives toward a precise, elusive intersection of wind, wave, and tide. Barbarian Days is a tender, virtuoso chronicle of fifty years chasing the fleeting ecstasy found on, and especially within, a wave's toppling face.
Finnegan, who for nearly thirty years has been a staff writer for The New Yorker, tells his story through the places surfing took him and the people it fastened him to. The places include Hawaii, the South Pacific, South Africa, San Francisco, Madeira, and the beaches and points either side of New York City. Among the people are the writer Bryan di Salvatore, with whom Finnegan spent two years surfing through the Southern Hemisphere, and the tireless, avid John Selya, a dancer from the Upper West Side. Early on Finnegan observes, "Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls."
If surfing is not easily entered, neither, once entered, is it easily exited. Finnegan writes of the early stages of his immersion, "I felt myself floating between two worlds. There was the ocean, effectively infinite, falling away forever to the horizon. This morning it was placid, its grip on me loose and languorous. But I was lashed to its moods now. The attachment felt limitless, irresistible." Surfing's psychic hold, on Finnegan as on many, is pre-critical, primal. "But my utter absorption in surfing had no rational content. It simply compelled me; there was a deep mine of beauty and wonder in it."
Trying to describe a great wave, surfers often stammer, studding their sentences with grunts and growls. But when Finnegan recounts peak moments, his prose soars:
The first time we surfed Jardim do Mar, or the first time we surfed it good, was probably the next year. Even at six feet, it was a serious wave. Heavy, long-interval lines marched out of the west, bending around the headland into a breathtaking curve. They feathered and bowled and broke at the outermost point of the horseshoe, and then reeled down a rocky shore … . As we got closer to the lineup, the power and beauty of the waves got more drenching. A set rolled through, shining and roaring in the low winter afternoon sun, and my throat clogged with emotion—some nameless mess of joy, fear, love, lust, gratitude.
Finnegan's emotional depth perception and seasoned reporter's eye ensure that, while surfing is usually in the foreground, the backdrops are equally compelling—just as closely observed, just as vividly rendered. In addition to friendship, the staging includes family, apartheid, the futility of nostalgia, and the change of aspect that self-congratulatory progressivism undergoes at a remove of several thousand miles, or several lived years.
A thread through the whole is the disturbingly direct correlation between devotion to surfing and dereliction in the duties of, in the classical sense, citizenship. "The newly emerging ideal was solitude, purity, perfect waves far from civilization. Robinson Crusoe, Endless Summer. This was a track that led away from citizenship, in the ancient sense of the word, toward a scratched-out frontier where we would live as latter-day barbarians." As a standout San Francisco surfer nicknamed Pee Wee put it, "The biggest locals can be the biggest derelicts … . It's such a great sport it corrupts people."
Little such corruption is on display in Surf Site Tin Type, a collection of tintype surfer portraits by Joni Sternbach. Sternbach's medium was, over a hundred years ago, the most common type of mobile photography. It involves coating a plate of dark iron with bitumen, sensitizing it with silver salt solution, and exposing it in the camera. The plate is developed on the spot and reads positive. Since the process is intensive, it asks patience of its subjects, in this case mostly strangers. Since the process promises a nearly instant yet subtle handcrafted portrait, it excites their curiosity and trust. And the product is no less rich than the process.
Sternbach's black-and-white surfers eye us from blurred beaches and parking lots, poised atop cobblestones, in front of palm trees, at the feet of scrubby cliffs. The sense of geographic and temporal remove that the medium evokes—the portraits resemble relics of some late 19th-century expedition—suggests surfers' status as a tribe apart. So it is no surprise that, like the cover copy of Barbarian Days, one of the essays included in Tin Type describes Sternbach's work as a kind of ethnography. But whereas waves are the pulsing obsession of Finnegan's story, only one rideable wave appears in Tin Type. The wave is the focus of Sternbach's subjects but not of her portraits of them.
Sternbach's images of the surfing life are at once more romantic and more domestic than Finnegan's. Many of her subjects are sculpted or svelte even in late middle age; others not. Virtually all are at the beach. Many drove there, and many are with spouses or children or pets. Tin Type lands us far from Finnegan's scratched-out frontier. While its subjects may not be bourgeois, they are more Beach Boys than barbarians.
More rueful than romantic, Finnegan doesn't flinch from the malign side of surfing or of himself. He candidly notes the "special brand of monomania, antisocial and ill-balanced, that a serious commitment to surfing nearly always brought with it." Now married and a father, Finnegan looks back thirty years and diagnoses a crucial instance of his "usual one-eyed thoughtlessness," a selfish, surf-focused squint that soured friendship and romantic partnership alike.
Finnegan grew up in a "dutiful, if not particularly enthusiastic" Roman Catholic family, and by thirteen had "mostly stopped believing in God." But this left "a hole in my world, a feeling that I'd been abandoned. The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure."
The violence of waves and the danger inherent in riding them are frequent refrains. But the dominant note in this hymn to the sea is glory—ever longed for, vanishingly beheld. And not only beheld: "Being adjacent to that much beauty—more than adjacent; immersed in, pierced by it—was the point."
This beatific vision at which Finnegan's surfing life aims is where his story ends. The final scene is a serendipitous session at one of the world's greatest waves, his only company a talented Fijian surfer named Inia, "a lay preacher, with a mind full to the brim with scripture." In a double reversal of surfing's Hawaiian demise at the hands of white missionaries, here was a "dark-skinned evangelist surfing his brains out," preaching the gospel to the skeptical Finnegan even as he guided him through the waves' beautiful treachery.
"I continued to doubt," Finnegan confesses. "But I was not afraid. I just didn't want this to end." Neither did I.
Bobby Jamieson is a PhD candidate in New Testament and affiliated lecturer in New Testament Greek at the University of Cambridge. He grew up surfing in Northern California.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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