14 July 2010

William Finnegan on Surfing

There are so many remarkable things about William Finnegan's 1992 New Yorker piece "Playing Doc's Games" that it's hard to know where to begin. Well, I should begin by saying you need to pony up subscription money to read this piece, or track it down elsewhere (but, with their thousands of archived articles available online, The New Yorker has become a better value).

First, there's the magazine itself, allowing two consecutive issues to be dominated by lengthy articles about surfing by a then less-known writer like Finnegan. Now I can only imagine the space being filled by a facile Malcolm Gladwell article on some contrary-sounding hypothesis that only his brilliant mind can elucidate, or an Oliver Sacks column on a New England man with a humorous brain condition. Not to mention all the poetry sprinkled through the issue (they're still mostly uninspiring poems from wizened old men, but there's more of them!).

I wouldn't normally be fascinated by thousands of words on surfing, but Finnegan's piece contains multitudes. He gives the precise descriptions in a New Yorker article: locations, techniques, subcultures and heroes. But Finnegan goes much deeper into his own psyche than I ever would have guessed. What begins as a standard glowing portrait of his charismatic friend Dr. Mark Renneker, a surfer/doctor/writer/guru/humanitarian, turns into a study of an artist finding his way.

Finnegan is lured by the easy blend of camaraderie and instruction he gets as a member of Doc's posse, trying to prove himself on the violent waves off Ocean Beach, San Francisco. But, after a few winters in the water, he realizes that surfing can be as distracting to one's vocation as any other addiction. For me, the piece's finest scenes feature a writer who needs the waves and the wind and the longboards and the friends almost as much as he needs to be alone.

So surfing and writing both abandon us with our fears, which I'd never guessed from my hours sitting on the beach, watching guys line up across the tide.


oswaldo pepe said...

Oi, I came to your blog while researching on Finnegan's articles on surf, because I am reading M S Moore 'Sweetness and blood' and in the cover these articles are mentioned as very good ones. Your post is very good, seems that you own the language... guessed you would like to hear this from sao paulo, brasil. aloha...

Anonymous said...

I watched Billy Finnegan debate Craig Leeds to a standstill in Ms. Wolfe's 8th grade English class, on the cultural topic "Greasers vs. Surfers."

He was entertaining, insightful, detailed, and thorough even then. He was the only surfer who wore wing tips in junior high. Here's to ya, Billy.

Anonymous said...

ops, it was Ms. Wolfe's 7th grade class at Parkman Jr. Hi, wasn't it?