PRINT December 2016

Books: Best of 2016

Trey Ellis


To those who don’t do it, much of the appeal of surfing—like being a cowboy or an astronaut—is in being seen as a surfer. But then there’s William Finnegan, who was an early witness to the surf revolution, from Old Man’s at San Onofre, California, to the never-ending wave machine off Waikiki, Hawaii, all before he’d left middle school. In his extraordinary and now Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Penguin, 2015), Finnegan relates in sharp, complicated, moment-to-moment fullness a half-century of wave riding and thinking about wave riding all around the world and almost always anonymously and out of the public gaze. But what truly elevates this memoir is its introspection. Finnegan, a longtime staff writer and war correspondent for the New Yorker, describes a peripatetic life lived achingly full—yet he remains scrupulously unfull of himself. Men writing about manly pursuits can be treacherous territory, veering into self-aggrandizement. Finnegan, however, is a gentle masculinist. His prose brings a gorgeous humility to riding impossible mountains of water, and to his obsessive, almost desperate need to find answers inside the next barrel, or the next set sweeping in from the horizon.

Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, and Associate Professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts.