I’m not really interested in surfing but I’m always interested in writing that earns the Pulitzer prize and tell my students that it’s a great list of texts to read! A few friends told me to read this book, so I purchased it. What Finnegan does so well falls under all of the excellent creative nonfiction and memoir conventions. They sound easy when you learn them: hyperbole, repetition, flash-back and flash-forward, embedding your cultural objects to dictate time, showing the reader how something “seemed” instead of reality, transitioning in time in the middle of a paragraph. Here are more. What is more important in this memoir is that someone like me, a very female reader (I love reading a good femoir!) who isn’t really interested in surfing, is engrossed. I want to know what happens to this protagonist whose family moves from LA to follow his father’s film career. Meanwhile, the side action of his father’s career, is the background and the main action of the son’s surfing life. This life is revealed surrounding this move.
I love flash forwards. Tobias Wolff is the king of them. Finnegan executes them well. In chapter two, we learn that our protagonist, William, has inadvertently caused his father to dislocate his shoulder splashing in the pool. At first, the reader is in the pool at the moment the dislocation happens, but the next paragraph does interesting things with time.
“Dad’s shoulder continued to dislocate every few years. The last time it happened, he was out at the Bomb. (A specific beach). He didn’t surf, so what was he doing, on a surfboard, out at the Bomb? Apparently, he paddled out just to have a look, to see big waves at close range. Then a set closed out the channel. He lost the board. And his shoulder came out of its socket. He went down once, twice, couldn’t stay afloat. A Hawaiian surfer saved him. I wasn’t there. I was in exile then, a college dropout. At the hospital, they opened up his shoulder, repaired the capsule, and tightened the surrounding muscles. It would not dislocate again. Neither would he be able to raise his arm above his head. Decades later, driving south through Laguna, I found myself hoping that my daughter, then four, never heard me bellow helplessly” (59-60).
This paragraph shows so many tricks. Instead of painfully telling us what surfer terms mean, Finnegan leaves them up for interpretation. In effect, the terms create theme and give us a feel for being plunged into surfer life. Instead of the narrator telling us, “I felt so guilty,” Finnegan shows us “Neither would he be able to raise his arm above his head.” Notice how “Decades later” plunges us forward in time in the same paragraph. It goes without notice and rolls us easily into this new time and space. Finnegan resists the temptation to tell us of his guilt carrying forward and simply remembers the sound of his father in pain. He transfers that sound onto his daughter.
I can tell you many places in This Boy’s Life by Wolff and in Wild by Strayed where they use this sly technique. I have the pages marked because these paragraphs can fly by. I challenge you to go now and find them. Practice them and integrate these lovely devices into your soul! Your reader will be amazed.