What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

William Finnegan's "Off Diamond Head"

I want to correct an oversight. Reviewing the June 1st New Yorker, I overlooked William Finnegan’s wonderful "Off Diamond Head." It’s a “Personal History” piece about the “clandestine life” Finnegan led when he was thirteen, living in Hawaii – clandestine in the sense that Finnegan’s parents knew him only as “Mr. Responsible.” They had no idea he was running with a racist gang called the In Crowd; they didn’t know about his fights with bullies at school; and they didn’t know about the risks he was taking on the water, surfing with his best friend Roddy (“I darted around, dodging peaks, way out at sea, half-hysterical, trying to keep an eye on Roddy”). I skipped “Off Diamond Head” the first time around because I thought it was about something I wasn’t interested in – surfer culture. But Finnegan is one of The New Yorker’s best writers (his "Silver or Lead" is a masterpiece). So I returned to “Off Diamond Head.” From its opening sentence (“The budget for moving our family to Honolulu was tight, judging from the tiny cottage we rented and the rusted-out Ford Fairlane we bought to get around”) right through to its superb conclusion –

A bruise-colored cloud hung over Koko Head. A transistor radio twanged on a seawall where a Hawaiian family picnicked on the sand. The sun-warmed shallow water had a strange boiled-vegetable taste. The moment was immense, still, glittering, mundane. I tried to fix each of its parts in memory. I did not consider, even in passing, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it chose.

– it caught and held me. Finnegan doesn’t just recollect his Hawaiian experiences, he relives them on the page. Of the waves at Kaikoos, he writes,

Thick, dark-blue peaks seemed to jump up out of deep ocean, some of them unnervingly big. The lefts were short and easy, really just big drops, but Roddy said the rights were better, and he paddled farther east, deeper into the break. His temerity seemed to me insane. The rights looked closed-out (unmakable), and terribly powerful, and, even if you made one, the ride would carry you straight into the big, hungry-looking rocks of outer Black Point.

Of the waves at Cliffs:

The sets were well overhead, glassy and gray, with long walls and powerful sections. I was so excited to see the excellence that my back-yard spot could produce that I forgot my usual shyness and began to ride with the crowd at the main peak. I was overmatched there, and scared, and got mauled by the biggest sets. I wasn’t strong enough to hold on to my board when caught inside by six-foot waves, even though I “turned turtle”—rolled the board over, pulled the nose down from underwater, wrapped my legs around it, and got a death grip on the rails. The whitewater tore the board from my hands, then thrashed me, holding me down for sustained, thorough beatings.

Crazy! Why do it? Why expose yourself to such “sustained thorough beatings,” to the risk of death? Finnegan’s answer – “It simply compelled me” – is hard to comprehend. But in the existential risk-taking of his thirteen-year-old surfer self, I see the ballsy journalist, who, in 2010, would venture into Michoacá – the hell mouth of the Mexican drug war – to report first hand on the mayhem.

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