In "Barbarian Days," New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan traces the waves' calling in his life through an extensive list of locales. His youth in California and Hawaii; a four-year excursion outside of the United States through Guam, Tonga, Fiji, Australia, Southeast Asia and South Africa, then a rising career in journalism in California and New York.
He mentions one landlocked phase that doesn't quite fit with the leitmotif of the memoir, subtitled "A Surfing Life."
Missoula was a welcome break from the "relatively rootless coastal life I'd grown up with," Finnegan said in a phone interview.
From 1975 to 1978, he attended the University of Montana, graduating with a master's degree in creative writing. Last month, "Barbarian Days" won the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography, the first time a UM alumnus has received the award in a book category since A.B. Guthrie Jr. in 1950.
What brought a surfer to the Northern Rockies? His close friend Bryan Di Salvatore, a fellow writer who figures heavily in that trip to Asia, was enrolled in the program and Finnegan followed suit.
He wanted to live in a place away from the coast that had "some other specific gravity, and Montana just had it. It wasn't just Missoula, it was the whole place," he said.
In the creative writing program, he studied under writers like William Kittredge and Ed McClanahan. Off campus, he learned to ski and got a job at Marshall Mountain.
"I slept in a lot of ski area parking lots in my van in different parts of western Montana," he said.
He also admits Missoula is where he "learned to drink."
"Eddie's Club was still the axis around which the hard-drinking literary scene spun," he said.
Around town, he ran into writers like James Crumley and Max Crawford and heard informal bar-stool seminars that "grabbed him."
Finnegan was initially reluctant to write about surfing, only broaching the subject in 1992 in a two-part New Yorker profile of a family-practice physician with whom he'd been hitting the waves in San Francisco. At the time, he was writing political pieces and columns and thought that "outing" himself as a surfer could damage his credibility.
"Which didn't happen at all. It was a needless concern," he said.
Despite that relief, he'd been under contract for "Barbarian Days" for about 20 years. He said he was distracted by more serious journalistic subjects and questions over how to write it or whether to write it at all.
That changed some 10 years or more ago, when he received a package in the mail that contained dozens upon dozens of letters, written in longhand to his best friend in California after Finnegan's family moved to Hawaii when he was 13.
"I just wrote all my impressions of Hawaii and adventures and surfing and school. Every detail of my adolescent life," he said. While often embarrassing, they were a "rich resource."
"They brought that period back. It was in my nose as I read. I thought, 'This is where the book starts,' " he said.
In Hawaii, the bullied junior high-schooler fell in with a haole gang, one that soon became integrated. He gets in occasional fights, and drifts from his family into the world of surfing. There's little debauchery in the book, though. The title comes from a quote from Edward St. Aubyn, used in reference to this period of his life and his early adulthood, when he pursued an ascetic and unconventional life as a surfer:
"He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of color landing on a page."
Finnegan's background in narrative nonfiction, complete with fact-checkers, played into the writing of the book.
"Memoir is a very weird genre for a reporter, because you're investigating your own memories. You're reporting out your past, and memory is notoriously unreliable," he said.
Fortunately, he kept voluminous journals from the 1960s through the 1980s. He used letters returned to him, like the ones mentioned earlier. Di Salvatore and Finnegan's first girlfriend both gave him access to their journals, and he tracked down long-lost friends.
"It's quite an arrogation to give yourself license to depict friends and loved ones in these unguarded, shared moments many years later. It was all private life, right? Nothing was on the record," he said.
Sometimes his recollections of an event differed from his companions, and they'd have to find an agreement on what happened.
While the book has won over the surf press and hard-core surfers, Finnegan wrote it for a general audience.
You have free articles remaining.
In the early chapters, when he's a young man seeking a "refuge or respite" from school, he said he deliberately included tutorials on the basics: how waves reach the coast and oceanography basics and surf terminology, and then leaves it to the reader to retain it in later portions, when a successful ride might be the climax of much travel and struggle.
"By the middle of the book, I'm describing a surf scene and letting them see what's at stake, but basically telling it the same way I would tell it to a surfer. And I think if the reader's up to speed at that point, there's some satisfaction in reading that," he said.
There's no shortage of passages describing surfing not as a sport but something deeper, like this passage:
"(W)aves dance to an infinitely complex tune. To a surfer sitting in the lineup trying to decipher the structure of a swell, the problem can indeed present itself musically. Are these waves approaching in 13/8 time, perhaps, with seven sets an hour, and the third wave of every set swinging wide in a sort of dissonant crescendo? Or is this swell one of God's jazz solos, whose structure is beyond our understanding?"
He said understanding the behavior of a wave or how a surf spot works is something that can't be written down in a journal or conveyed with a diagram, a common surfing habit.
"It's reading the ocean. It's understanding what the ocean is doing at a given moment and trying to anticipate it and being in the right spot," he said.
"It's actually something that's such an intense study that you don't need to write it down. You're learning it or you're not learning it," he said.
Through the years traveling, Finnegan remained an avid reader with aspirations to become a novelist – he completed three, all unpublished. During his time in Missoula and the long Southeast Asia trip, he wrote and re-wrote a manuscript about railroad workers. In his description, it was dense, experimental fiction, filled with trade lingo and jargon that he found lyrical and profound.
At UM, he was "forced to mature as a writer to some small extent." He was arrogant, and if workshop attendees didn't understand his work, he'd blame the reader. A publisher, too, told him that the novel didn't let the reader in. He's revisited the railroad novel recently and didn't understand it himself.
However, he said the experiences at UM began to raise his own concerns about the accessibility of his work.
After Asia, he headed to South Africa and found a job teaching high school – an apolitical white American whose students were protesting apartheid.
"It was such an intensely political year that by the end of it I had lost interest in the sort of fiction that I was writing," he said. When he came back to the U.S., he began pursuing freelance political pieces. The teaching position in Cape Town was his last day job.
Finnegan said there was some surprise in the surf press that a book on the subject received such mainstream success.
Asked if there's ever been a book, fiction or nonfiction, or a movie, that accurately captured the world of surfing, he said no.
The closest was the 1960s documentary, "Endless Summer," in which the filmmaker flew pro surfers around the world – not a realistic look into the subculture.
"It's funny that movie was so influential in the world of surfing, in the sense that it gave people like me and Bryan this idea that, 'We have to do that eventually. When we grow up and we've got some money saved, we'll set off around the world looking for waves,' " he said.
He thinks other attempts from outside the surfing world have usually come up short, even with a nonfiction luminary like Tom Wolfe.
"It's really difficult for a non-surfer to get anything right about surfing. It's such a world unto itself: all the technical language is precise to its purpose, and if you surf you know it and if you don't, you don't," he said.
While he's discussed selling movie rights to the book, he hasn't seen the correct approach yet, and in general believes surfing hasn't worked on screen, calling it cinematic kryptonite.
"Every movie that's got surfing in it seems to become a roaring dud," he said.
The surfing biography – or ghostwritten autobiography – is a subgenre in Australia, one Finnegan said he wasn't aware of until recently. They're typically about professionals, he said, and often follow a rock-star arc of fame, debauchery, destitution and redemption, none of which figure into his life or his book.
"I even had interviewers calling me and asking me, 'Where are the naughty bits?' "
Since graduating, Finnegan has visited Montana and Missoula, where Di Salvatore lives. (He's on the cover, too.) In the late ’90s, the New Yorker let Finnegan jump in the van for a DIY tour with local punk band the Sputniks. "It was a five-word editorial meeting: 'Punk rock band in Montana.' 'Go,' " he said. He washed out after a week, making it as far as Chicago on a road trip destined for New York. He said the band members were funny youths, and two of them, Zach and Chad Dundas, are now writers themselves.
Finnegan, who still surfs on the East Coast, said it's surprising to return to Missoula and find a river-surfing wave and a board shop. The sport, nonexistent here when he was an undergrad, is difficult, he said, and one that he'd never tried before. He surfed Brennan's Wave several weeks ago, but was stymied by the use of an ocean board, not a specialized river model, in the tight constraints of the wave.
"Never had the right equipment, that's my excuse," he said.