Barbarian Days: Riding Out Quarantine. A Review of Years in the Rear View.

Allison Murphy
7 min readJun 20, 2020

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In the travel-less times of a quarantined world, William Finnegan’s memoir Barbarian Days takes us places.

I bought Barbarian Days by William “Bill” Finnegan in the summer of 2017 when I realized that I wanted to major in Anthropology — a little late maybe since I’d just finished my Freshman year of Fashion studies at design school. As it were, Anthro with Professor Falls threw me over the falls with fashion, and upon request, she suggested this book. My purchase was really its own compensation then, a paperback salve for sticking with a major and college I felt soulless about. Since then, I’d flipped the same first hundred pages sporadically, on and off, and mostly whenever I was faced with the internal dilemma Peter Pan might have faced if his postal code wasn’t Neverland. The question remained: who the hell was I trying to grow up to be?

I turned twenty-two in the early hours of March 19 in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. As the world spiraled through an identity crisis and I went through a birthday, it was a good day, as any, for an ego evaluation. Naturally, I picked up the book that had become little more than a shelved statement art piece, my reminder of different potential. The circumstances of my return to Finnegan’s expansive life were not so different really but heightened.

Four months into post-grad and a global pandemic panic attack had canceled Brooklyn rent, two months of traveling in Europe, and squeezed me back into my childhood bedroom (not entirely difficult as a child-sized adult). Life suddenly sucked me back into the jaws of job searching, again; and Finnegan’s question of growing up, and really life at large, not only felt timely but essential. It was easier to approach this dilemma indirectly because I empathized with the surfer’s inevitable conflict between working and surfing, over directly confronting my own conflict with job searching versus soul searching.

This four-hundo paged time capsule chronicles Bill’s (an award-winning international affairs journalist and New Yorker staff writer) confessional lost years as a surfer. With each read, Finnegan’s passages faithfully drawback our concept of a limited real-time world, to then slingshot us forward and imagine a prospectively limitless one. In this way, his memories stretch back into the past’s simpler times, freeing us — until you realize AIDS, Apartheid, and countless run-ins with malaria epidemics and post-colonial civil wars are not at all far fetched from today’s troubles.

Barbarian Days complements our current universal coming-of-age as we process purpose in strange times, trying to reinvent meaning each day with the selective options it offers. Answering the omnipresent surfer’s call to escape, Bill’s roaming and open conscious appeals even more so in a world that’s been confined, one that is inexplicably contracted to a tense degree of internal rupture. A candid and colloquial reflection of his drifting youth, Bill’s two-year surfing expedition ironically incites the coming-of-age he’d tried to evade in the waves.

Finnegan’s cross-continental search for surf spans South America, The American Pacific, Australia, Indonesia, and Africa. His quintessential surf safari maintains the capitalist stereotype of the Surfer’s endless folly, a man-child with useless ambition. Objectively though, Bill’s search for the perfect wave in a trip around the world is not a novel journey at all, not even an original plot. Frankly, his preoccupation with surf did not even inspire his own community, as “among my friends, there was a strong belief in the surfer’s path [though] most swerved from it sooner or later.” Instead, his trip around the world was any surfer’s average ambition, and his objective for perfection insatiably aimless. Simply put, his journey was the perfect distraction from “joining society” and “growing up”; but it is not Finnegan’s point. Instead, Bill’s passive search for the self and surrender to that discovery under the metaphor of a perfect wave is.

Tavarua “Cloud Break” Fiji. Bill and Bryan’s secret “perfect” wave before snagged by the Mag.

Bill strays from the masculine pioneering perspective that narrates the culture that raised him (one iconically and hackishly idle, territorially off-limits, and fevered in stoke) by using a detached, yet sensitive candor. It is here most fascination with his story lies — not in surfing’s glory days, or its heroes (of which Bill mingled with an astounding crowd of legends), not even in the majesty of famed waves. It is rather his silky reaction to surfing, especially as one of surfing’s seasoned select.

Finnegan remarkably applies feminine tenor to the macho, aggressively cool tone of modern surfing. He intimately observes and anatomically dissects the hydro world’s enchantments. Mesmerized by the gracious chaos that we grounded and calculating beings can never fully join, he responds to it mutably, philosophically, as well as practically. Bill observes his “barbaric days” with an open therapy candor that emasculates, if even unintentionally, surfing’s ego. “The old-school masculinity that so many-including me, found attractive, carried with it no small loneliness.”

This Walden Thoreau lifestyle, a watermen’s wet dream, disconnects Bill socially from the world even as he travels it. This expansive yet remote life is a palpable paradox for today. Through his traveling retrospects, we empathize, even as we stay put, with the same rhetorics he ventures out in a wave, hostel, or car camping. “I panicked sometimes convinced I was wasting my youth, aimlessly wandering on the dark side of the moon”. This took me aback.

Often I find myself panicked I’m wasting my youth on the inside of society, not on the outside of it. In surfing, in life, don’t we strive to be on the outside? I think I still do? Strive for that. The time-out and remote nature of today’s global lock-in sat me under the same existential umbrella as Bill, in the same shade of wondering: what’s next for me?

To ride out quarantine, I found that Finnegan and I shared some commonality. We both abandoned expectations (Bill intentionally, me reluctantly), and since had endless time to direct ourselves aimlessly, searching for a meaningful human experience.

Finnegan’s detached yet nostalgic account for the golden days soothes the bleak ones of today and tomorrow. He confronts the surfer’s inevitable conflict between working and surfing, a dilemma we now face universally: drowned in the guilt of vague downtime, and chafed by the discomfort of not working. As we wade through flotsams of uncertainty, its Bill’s nostalgia, always a heroed raft in the floating future, that smooths out this ubiquitous anxiety. His hindsight convinces readers that meaning isn’t confined to intense moments of achievement, single experiences, or even an era. There is no pinpoint to purpose, nor its pursuit.

Consistently in Bill’s memories, we find that the momentum towards, and the adrenaline of purpose is realized in doubtful moments of stillness and retreat, the same silence festering FOMO. “Homesick and sick of traveling…I wasn’t tempted to quit Asia like Bryan, but I was having trouble remembering exactly why I was here…my existence-this extremity of obscurity I had perversely chosen.” Even in the deep-ends of his dream, soaked in the love of his life, Bill drifts to wonder if he was in the right place, doing the right thing, missing out elsewhere. I found this comforting. Someone consumed by indulging their appetite for waves, a textured and fantastic life, still feared its staleness.

Plainly, Bill did the same thing, different wave, for years on end. Outside of this context that sounds wasteful. The storyline he creates though is rich in “living.” In the days I live on a loop, I find solace that my “same thing, different day” can still manifest some magic. I think we can unanimously agree quarantine is not as epic as Finnegan’s odyssey on the open faces of paradise, but I am optimistic we are all still finding the point of things similarly.

In Surfing’s typical “escapist” fashion, Barbarian Days transplants us in past times to more comfortably experience the passing times we now breathe in and gulp down. Bill’s lost years position our anticipation towards what momentum is lining up on today’s horizon. Passively, we all watch and wait for what’s on the outside of this.

My send-off nudges you to drop in on Barbarian Days’ tenderly textured lines. I invite you to spare the deceptively infinite time we have and trespass on Bill’s surf pilgrimage. His story deserves reaction beyond my gleam in a mirror when I reach an endnote, and/or a friend’s feigned face, miming the sentience of shared cadence.

If nothing else sold you, here’s a throwaway reason to reel over Finnegan’s memories: it's a Pulitzer recipient, and out there, surfing the net, there’s a picture of Obama reading it. So g’head! I guarantee in its wake you’ll have a better vibe on, and even feel tempted by what life has out the back.

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