A Fan's Notes
For the sports fan, October is the time of narrative abundance, a time with endings both happy (see Albert Pujols and Nelson Cruz) and despairing (Boston, Epstein, fried chicken), second acts that promise to keep up interest well into the new year (the Detroit Lions, LSU v. Alabama, Wayne Rooney's suspension), and beginnings both optimistic (Sidney Crosby's return, Midnight Madness) and bleak (the National Basketball Association). Given the ways in which sports so often embody every element of human drama, there is a surprising dearth of literary fiction that offers sports as anything more than a tangential subject matter, a fact recently bemoaned
by The Atlantic
's Reeves Wildemann.
We can access any number of classic profiles
, hatchet jobs
, as-told-to auto-bios
, and ways for Bill Simmons to spend 9000 words lamenting the loss of Manny Ramirez
. But why is there so little great, or even very good, fiction about the dominant pop-cultural pre-occupation of our time? Wildemann contends that the mental focus of a top one-percent athlete is alien to the mental focus required of an author fiction, but various authors (see below) have disproved that idea. Perhaps there is an assumption among publishers and writers of there being a miniscule overlap in the Venn diagram of fiction readers and sports fans and that the audience for literary fiction is largely uninterested in organized sports.
Whatever the reason, it might be useful to compile a list of fiction about sports that appeal to those readers who are fans and those that couldn't tell Tracy Austin from Tracy McGrady:
¶ David Foster Wallace
Wildemann discounts DFW's masterpiece as being a book not about sports but "involving" sports. In that case Moby Dick
is a book that "involves" a whale. Wallace uses tennis as a means of all his lifelong obsessions: infinity, physical grace, the impossibility of perfection, the tragedy that results when children are compelled to pursue perfection, the psychological dead end of entertainment, and the ways in which sport can become its own kind of addiction. Wallace gets bonus points for also inventing a sport, Eschaton. Dramatized here
, directed by Michael Schur and scored by Colin Meloy. (If you don't have the six-to-twelve weeks necessary to read IJ in its entirety, then do at least check out this meditation
on the genius of Roger Federer, one of the last things Wallace completed before his death in 2008.)
The Dixie Association
¶ Donald Hays
Disclosure: Mr. Hays is a friend and former teacher of mine. So don't take my word for it. The book's praises have been sung by the likes of Colum McCann
and Richard Price who called it "An homage to the unhittable spitball that made this country great."
A Fan's Notes
¶ Frederick Exley
Not so much a book about sports, as it is the ways in which sports (football in particular) looms over American culture. It's the finest evocation of the way in which sports are as much about the audience as they are the participants, covering everything from a failure to live up to parental expectation, to cultural obsession to mental illness, to Frank Gifford. That is to say America.
North Dallas Forty
¶ Peter Gent
Gent was an All-American tight end for Michigan State and a starter for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 to 1968. He was not a jock who happened to be a good writer. He was a great writer. In North Dallas Forty
he depicts a week in the life of a Dallas Cowboys-esque team in all its hilarity, brutality, and hypocrisy. Best part: when the Don Meredith-like quarterback recounts an evening in which he speaks to a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and afterwards participates in a ménage a tois with two board female board members of the FCA while their husbands watch. Because in Dallas there was (is?) no greater honor for a man than to have the Cowboys quarterback nail your wife. Like Friday Night Lights
, it's a crucial read for anyone interested in American football or anyone interested in the general psychology of the Republic of Texas.
¶ Don Delillo
Delillo's second novel ranks as my favorite. He authentically captures the play-by-play minutiae of the game and the POV of a troubled player transferred to an unnamed West Texas university, while dealing with the themes that continue to permeate his work: Cold War paranoia, entertainers as religious figures, the intricacies of language (there's a chapter written almost entirely in the patois of a football playbook). Think of it as a test run for White Noise
with a hundred fewer pages and a lot less pretension. See also: Dellilo's justly acclaimed meditation on The Shot Heard Round the World in Underworld
The Breaks of the Game
¶ David Halberstam
This one's a cheat since it's a work of non-fiction, but since it looks like we're not going to see the NBA for a very long time, this will have to tide the fans over for a while. America's greatest journalist takes a novelistic look at the 1979 Portland Trail Blazers, drawing complex portraits of enigmatic personalities like injury-riddled prodigy Bill Walton and league pariah Kermit Washington. Bill Simmons calls it "the perfect book about the perfect team" and he's not wrong, but, like all the other books I've listed, it's also about the ephemeral nature of that kind of perfection, the pain and futility that result from trying to recapture it, and the redemption that is possible afterwards.
A list like this could go on for several thousand more words incorporating works about pseudo-sports (Deliverance
, A River Runs Through It
), shorter pieces (Tom Perotta's "The Smile On Happy Chang's Face," John Cheever's "The Swimmer, " the masterful prologue to Dennis Lehane's otherwise messy The Given Day
), and acclaimed works I have yet to get to (Bernard Malamud's The Natural
, Barry Hannah's Tennis Handsome
, John Edgar Wideman's Hoop Roots
). Please let me know what I might have forgotten.