"The Windansea Pump house, calling out phonies since the sixties!" says local photographer and big wave specialist Derek Dunfee. Looking at this sunset, it's easy to see why the local surfer's are so protective!
"Finnegan is a Kook" says the Windansea Pump House
Words by Ali Klinkenberg | Photos by Derek Dunfee
The Windansea Pump House is specifically designed to part the seas of surf bullshit. Since the sixties, the graffiti sprayed by La Jolla locals on the pump house (a sewage pump in front of the break at Windansea) has acted as the voice of the rebel living within gentrified Southern California. Over the years locals have taken great pride in calling out those who’ve tried to ride surfing’s coat tails, including a rather famous writer by the name of Tom Wolfe. The latest piece of scrawl that decorates the Pump House as we speak? “Finnegan is a Kook.” Finnegan being William Finnegan, writer at the New Yorker and author of the newly-lauded surf memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. So, who is this miscreant with the spray can?
The Pump House Gang is a collection of essays by Tom Wolfe published in 1968 that centred around Jack Macpherson and a gang of surfers that frequently hung around a sewage pump at Windansea Beach in La Jolla. Surfers in general were dismissive of Wolfe’s brief foray into the surf lifestyle due to his butchering of a couple of surf terms, but mainly because he depicted them as a bunch of perpetually "stoned out of their hulking gourds" responsibility-dodgers who took joy from going to parties and making holes in the walls. One of the local rogues subsequently voiced their opinion of the great writer in foot-high letters on the Pump House, the word 'Dork' underlined to emphasise the point. Tom Wolfe was undoubtedly a bit of a dork, and he didn't know anything about surfing. And that leads us to William Finnegan.
Willliam Finnegan's surf memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life has been praised by media both surf and non-surf alike as an accurate account of the life of a surfer. Universally respected surf journo Sean Doherty thinks that Finnegan's "description of the actual surfing experience is pretty much as close to the mark as you’re ever going to get." And that, "there’s only a handful of people who can write about the experience properly. It’s an amazing book." And after reading the book, it's hard to find fault with Finnegan's memoir or Doherty's sentiment. In short, it's brilliant. Finnegan stated from the start that the book isn't directed at surfing's pious 'core', but is instead intended to offer a gateway into the surfing life for the unenlightened masses. "It's not easy to keep non-surfers turning the pages when you tell surf stories," says Finnegan. "But I've had an intense 50-year surfing life, full of complicated people and places (waves) I really love, so I decided to give it a shot." His prose in Barbarian Days is graphically descriptive of the surfing experience, and romantic, yet free cringe-free.
The charming 'Finnegan is a Kook' slogan is the artistic embryo of a talented La Jolla surfer and bookshop worker who wishes to remain nameless. Our protagonist first came across Finnegan in Mexico, before the book was released, and described the writer as giving off an "uncertain defensive arrogance like if forced to he might tell me, 'Look kid, I'm actually doing pretty good for myself, in case you didn't know.'" Our fiery young book salesman went on to say, "I won't explain how he surfed. I'm not that gifted of a writer. I'll just say he surfed exactly how I'd expect him to." It raises the question, do you have to be a good surfer to speak about surfing with any kind of authority? In his memoirs Finnegan is simply recounting his experiences as a surfer (he can certainly stand up on a surfboard, there's pictorial evidence which makes him a surfer, right?), and, subsequently, he's gone on to a successful career at the New Yorker making a name for himself covering conflicts in places like Somalia and the Sudan. Exceptional stories are worth telling, and Finnegan's tale is as unusual as it is captivating.
So, what's wrong with surfing and having a good job? "There's nothing wrong with having a good job and being a surfer," says our anonymous La Jolla local. "But when I see a shiny brand new Escalade pull up to a spot and some monkey suit chump gets out with a brand new board straight off the rack... I don't exactly tell myself, "Damn this guy's got a lot of soul." And that's more what I'm interested in: Soul." This sentiment is easy to side with. Investing so much time into surfing from such a young age, like many of us have, it's natural to feel protective of it. Our young artist sums up his own thoughts on the matter perfectly when he reiterates his motive behind the, let's face it, harmless and tongue in cheek jab at Finnegan, who's enjoying his time in the sun because of his surfing experiences. "More than an obligation to the history of the Pump House Gang I feel an obligation to myself and my friends and to the surfers I admire. I know Finnegan's a renowned writer and journalist and has put himself through a lot of intense experiences. And hats off to him for that. I just wasn't stoked or inspired by my encounter with him."
The crux of the matter is thus: Is surfing too sacred and oversubscribed already to be opened to the great unwashed, or would the world be a better place if everyone just had a little more surf?