A Surfing Life
Penguin Press 2015, 447 pp, HC, $27.95
I didn't have any high hope that this book would satisfy any of my literary pleasures. It is, after all, a book about a sport and when sports enthusiasts wax long on the activity to which they are dedicated they tend to get either ultra-technical or sloppily enthusiastic. But Finnegan doesn't come close to either of these literary sins. His prose is clean and well constructed. His tone is matter of fact, even when describing life threatening situations. I say this because the public image of the surfing life does not usually include the talent of lucid analysis or an ear for a well-turned phrase. Finnegan exhibits both in his homage to the art (not just "sport") of surfing. I shouldn't have worried...he has been on the staff of The New Yorker since 1987. He is indeed a wordsmith as well as a champion surfer and a pleasure to read, especially when he deconstructs a perfect wave.
Surfing is not your average contact sport...of course there's a lot of contact...and water can be very heavy, but Finnegan has a well developed appreciation not only for the well-turned phrase but also, shall I say, the well turned wave. As a professional journalist he travels the world chasing top stories as well as best waves. I must admit, it sounds pretty close to the perfect life.
He writes "I spent the fall reporting n the civil war in Sudan. On days without waves, I sat at a card table in my room writing about Nile geopolitics, famine, slavery, political Islam, cattle-herding, nomads, and my travels with Sudanese guerrillas in the liberated, terrifying South Sudan."
Surfing may be the perfect antidote for human tragedy. It certainly is a strong impetus to travel. The perfect wave is always out there! But he did have doubts. "On good days, I still thought I was still doing the right thing. The particulars of new places grabbed me and held me, the sweep of new coasts, cold, lovely dawns."
His description of a wave put me on it. (I have actually been there, briefly...a real thrill!) He also discusses specific cultural attitudes toward the oceans that seem unique to surfers. Being a curious and intelligent reporter as well as a dedicated surfer, in the course of the book, he also delves into the various pros and cons and characteristics of the waves, the people, the culture, the food and hospitality. All in all, this book gave me a great ride and brought me safely to shore. I am still exhilarated.