Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2015) William Finnegan

As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga in the mid 1980s I spent all my time around and a lot of time in the ocean. Big waves and coral reef everywhere, sandy open beaches not so much. Swimming, snorkeling, all day with great care— that coral is 18693910 2sharp! Surfing? No, not in Tonga! Well one evening at the local hotel pub a couple of Yanks roll in and buy a welcome round of Foster’s for me and my mates from the fish market. “Where do we catch the good surf out here?” one guy asks. None of the Tongans had anything to say on this question— not quite a “Charlie Don’t Surf” Robert Duval moment but It was clearly up to me to set these footloose surfer dudes straight about the recreational possibilities of these islands. Half way to going native by this time in my two year service, I adopted the Tongan way (anga fakatonga) of never telling a stranger a direct negative— instead you play, dissemble, send them to someone else to be denied. “See that guy over there,” I point, “he has a taxi, and can get you to the airport. Then you can catch a flight to Fiji for your surf vacation!” By my reckoning of dates this encounter was not with Barbarian Days author William Finnegan, who passed through Tonga a several years earlier in search of the waves, and was not denied! No, Bill and his bud, found their way to the oddball of the Tongan archipelago ‘Eua island and it’s mixed coastline of cliffs, lagoons, and white sand beaches. The only one of the 100 odd islands that has a regular population of sea birds. Check a map.. Tonga is out there! It was not the best surf stop in this particular two years away from his California and Hawaii home bases, but it sure adds a good chapter to his and the book too! Finnegan has been turning out top notch stuff as a staff writer on the covering conflict and other intense matters around the globe beat at NewYorker for going on 30 years. This is his back story, his core, his soul story. From the youngest age, we meet Bill, whose priority was, as successfully demonstrated in Tonga, finding the right waves. And becoming a writer of considerable talents. Patient, observant, honest, critical, loving. A real gem of a book.

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