Tag Archives: sport

Barracuda (2013) – Christos TSIOLKAS

Very few sports novels are actually about sport, and Barracuda is no exception. Recent discourse in Australian literary circles has focussed on how to better promote the excellent work done by female writers in this country. Barracuda is a slap in the face to this trend—more than any novel I have read recently, this is a novel that interrogates what it means to be a man. How do you go from being a man in your prime, a man perfectly sculpted to take part in the ultimate masculine challenge to man reviled for the very things that make you who you are?

All of this is embodied in Daniel Kelly. Danny is the misfit at his private school—placed there on a sport scholarship, he is hated by his teammates because he is better than then, even though he is poorer, and much less white. But while he is being bullied mercilessly in the classroom, he is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the pool. He is the Barracuda, mercilessly beating everyone that gets in his way. The disconnect between his in-pool and out-of-pool selves is unsurprising, but the vast distance between the two is.

Out of the pool, Danny’s weakness is his crippling self-doubt. and I cannot help but wonder how many other athletes suffer a similar affliction. Danny’s self-worth is so intrinsically tied to how he performs in the pool, he quite literally cannot imagine a life in which he cannot compete with the world’s best. There would be nothing else for him. To see a man try and claw his way back to having any kind of functional self-respect is a fascinating journey, and one Tsiolkas treats with deftness and dignity.

There are, of course, no excuses for what Danny does to his friend (think Nick D’Arcy on a bad night). At that point, he embodies everything that is wrong with Australian sports culture, particularly in respect to way we build up young men (I use that word deliberately) to succeed. And so, in parallel with this story of the Fall is a story of redemption, of a broken man attempting to find himself. The internal has become external as Danny becomes a drifter, floating through the world, trying desperately to find a role for himself in a world that has no time or space for losers.

I always image people who came to Christos Tsiolkas’ work via The Slap get something of a shock when they decide to dip into his earlier work. Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe are glorious novels, unlike anything else in the Australian canon, but they are intense, in-your-face works that force the reader to re-evaluate a great many of their opinions about contemporary Australia. The big question I wanted answered when I opened Barracuda was this: which way would Tsiolkas go this time? Would he continue the careful examination he began in The Slap of contemporary Australia, or would he return to his wilder youth?

I can’t help but feel that Barracuda is Tsiolkas defanged. There is no question that he is an excellent examiner of the contemporary Australian psyche—indeed, I can think of no other. But Barracuda is another step towards the mainstream. The scenes designed to shock are no longer shocking (particularly the sex scenes, which seem crowbarred in just for shock value), the barbs aimed at upper-middle-class white Australians seem to be just a little bit less sharp.

Barracuda is not Christos Tsiolkas’ best novel. But even when he’s having an off day, he forces us to think. How do we deal with the internal pressures we place on ourselves to satisfy the wants and demands of the many? I think Tsiolkas is ultimately hopeful in this respect: he sees paths of redemption for all of us who have done something terrible, for those of us who struggle to find our place in society.

Oh, and that last chapter? Perfection.

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The Art of Fielding (2011) – Chad HARBACH

Considering Australia’s recent Ashes performances, this seems as good a time as any to make a confession: I don’t like cricket.

I know. I’m probably the worst Australian ever. What I’m about to say probably makes me even worse.

I enjoy baseball. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but I did play it for almost ten years as a kid, so I have a soft spot for it. I even went with my family to the Olympics in 2000 to see Australia play a few games.

It was with all of this in mind that I picked up The Art of Fielding, a well-received debut American novel ostensibly about baseball.

Henry Skrimshander has been called to Westish College in Wisconsin on a baseball scholarship. He has been spotted by scouts, and his natural talent is what they want for their floundering team. But no one is perfect, and one day Henry makes a mistake that will have surprising and unexpected effects on everyone around him.

The first chapter of The Art of Fielding is almost perfect. I think, had this been a short story, it would be a glorious piece of literature. The tone Harbach hits is exactly what it should be, as he tells the story of a young kid from South Dakota who loves playing baseball simply because he enjoys it slowly realising that someone might actually pay him to do so. His innocence at his own ability is instantly loveable, in a dopey kind of way.

You really feel for Henry as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that, yes, he isn’t perfect. I’m hoping Tsiolkas covers similar ground later in the year with his new novel, but perhaps in a better way. Henry’s existential crisis comes not from without—he doesn’t collapse in upon himself because he feels pressure to perform from his parents, from his coach, from his teammates—but from within. He is so used to being very good at what he does—and it appears to be the only thing that makes him truly happy—that to suddenly make a quite large and quite obvious mistake shatters him.

The obvious comparison to make with The Art of Fielding is, of course, Jonathan Franzen. Harbach adopts a similar tone, this deeply American style, with equal parts cynicism about the present, and rose-tinted glasses for the past; and the way the story is told—cycling through the different points of view in this quasi-family created on-campus is almost exactly the same as The Corrections. And in the same way, it feels like it is something of a throw-back, a yearning for a simpler time when men holed up in tiny universities could be seen as eternal bachelors without rumours about their sexuality flying; when sport could unite a tiny town; when romance was real. It’s kind of cute in its innocence.

I’m not sure The Art of Fielding is exactly groundbreaking fiction: I didn’t feel like I was ever in danger of having my mind blown by what was about to come. But it is a nice novel to read, easy to digest, and never really challenging. I mean this in a positive manner, I hasten to add—sometimes it’s good to just immerse yourself in the lives of well-drawn characters that feel like they could be your friends.

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Between Clay and Dust (2012) – Musharraf Ali FAROOQI

Staying in Pakistan, though admittedly with a complete shift in tone, today’s longlisted Man Asian Literary Prize novel is Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust, published by small Indian press Alpha Books. I don’t have a particular interest in sport novels, but then again, I read Chinaman and loved it, so I’m willing to be wowed again.

The old city, standing at the centre of the new city, is home to many people who have lived through a lot. One of the these people is Ustad Ramzi, well-known champion pahalwan, clinging to the old noble ways of wrestling. Another is Gohar Jan, an ageing courtesan, who is also hoping for a return to the old times. But the rest of society is moving past them, and together, they must weather the changes.

If Anjali Joseph’s novel is about the youth of today, then Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust provides us with a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. His characters are elderly and tired, having spent their lives in the service of their respective careers.

There’s probably little better in the world to act as a metaphor for fragility and ageing than sport. It doesn’t matter which sport it is—the idea of someone falling hard and fast from their physical and mental prime, falling from the ultimate symbol of (in this case) male strength and virility is a powerful one. In this case, Farooqi uses wrestling, complete with the trappings of culture and tradition that are inherent in these kinds of things to tell the story of modernisation, of young against old, of an old man realising he has no place in the modern world.

This is played out in the relationship between the two brothers that run the akhara. Ustad Ramzi, the older, has been reigning regional champion for many years, but he has come to realise that he can no longer handle the physical and mental demands of his chosen profession. But he cannot give the reigns of running the stables to his much younger brother, Tamami, who has spent his life living in the shadow of his much more successful older brother. And so Farooqi tells the story of an age-old tension—two brothers with different points of view and different agendas.

In many ways Ustad Ramzi create the Tamami he doesn’t like and cannot trust. He refuses to let his younger brother take over any duties or activities of the akhara, and so Tamami turns to acting out, to not taking wrestling seriously, as a way to kill time, or perhaps to attract the attention of his older brother. Neither trust the other to do what they want, because of the history between them. There is no easy way out for either of them to break this cycle.

But it is Ramzi who is the first to break. He allows Tamami to take the mantle of head fighter of the family stable, and there is a montage scene (because, what sporting story is complete without a good training montage?) in which Tamami bulks up in preparation for the bout against a representative of the opposing stable. Of course, Tamami loves the attention and the training he is getting, because he feels like he has deserved this for a long time. The ensuing fight is tough, and Tamami has been so trained, so conditioned to get angry when he fights, he snaps, and accidentally kills his opponent.

Ironically, it is Ramzi’s driving away of Tamami that causes the eventual collapse of the akhara, not the fact that Tamami is a new breed of pahalwan, willing to do things Ramzi might not once have been willing to do. His intense training for the bout caused his anger to rise, and he lashed out at his opponent. Wracked with guilt over what he as done, he turns to drugs, and so beginning a spiral to the bottom.

The sport itself is changing, too. There are promoters now, people trying to sell tickets and make the sport more exciting for those who pay good money for an evening’s entertainment. In many ways, it is no longer about the sport, but about the spectacle of the sport. People want to see something exciting, even if it means sacrificing traditions and long-held ideas about how the sport should be played. Gulab Deen sets up a stable of wrestlers willing to sacrifice some of the more traditional aspects of wrestling to make it more exciting, to have exhibition matches, to occasionally know the outcome of the match before it has even begun. Needless to say, Ustad Ramzi does not approve of Gulab Deen and his ways, but Tamami, someone willing to rebel against Ustad Ramzi in any way he can, finds himself a part of this merry band of wrestlers.

The side plot to all this is Ustad Ramzi’s relationship with Gohar Jan, the head of the local brothel—though that might be too strong a word. She, too, is finding her age catching up with her: as the world changes, she finds fewer people needing her services, or the services of her girls. Much of their relationship is left unsaid, but Ramzi finds solace in a woman he has known for a long time, and together, they enjoy traditional dance and music. These are nice scenes, and I would have liked to see more of this pushed throughout the novel.

It’s interesting to note that both main characters uphold what could politely be termed as traditional gender roles. Ustad Ramzi has spent his life riding on the fact that he is physically strong and imposing, using his masculinity to frighten others inside the ring, giving him celebrity and respect outside the ring. Meanwhile, Gohar Jan uses her femininity to make money from men looking for physical and emotional comfort.

Farooqi pulls these strands together in a very short novel(la). Many scenes are little more than a page long, lending the work a sense of control and precision usually seen in good short stories. But this is a full-length work, and Farooqi tackles his themes with aplomb. A small, but well-formed meditation on what it means to get old.

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Chinaman (2011) – Shehan KARUNATILAKA

Chinaman, or The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, won the revamped Commonwealth Writers’ Prize this year. It had been on my radar for a while, thanks mainly to Mark’s review, and insistence that I read it. So I ordered it a little while ago, and when it arrived at my house this week, just after the prize announcement, I knew I had to read it. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this fast – which can only be a good thing, right?

The cricket world seems to have a short memory. Why can no one remember Pradeep Mathew, one of the best spin bowlers in the history of the game? W.G. Karunasena (Wije) – a retired sports-writer, and current drunk – remembers, and wants to tell the world just how this young Sri Lankan man became a great player. But finding evidence is hard, and as Wije’s becomes more and more ill, time is running out, and information is becoming more and more scarce.

It’s safe to say that I have little to no interest in cricket, though as an Australian, I have learned a surprisingly large amount of it by osmosis. While our our narrator is keen to point out early on in the novel that no knowledge of cricket is required, I am curious to see how many of the references to famous cricketers non-cricketers (read: Americans) understand – Shane Warne is referred to simply as Shane; Mark Waugh, Muttiah Muralitharan, and a whole host of other famous Sri Lankan, Australian and international players are mentioned with no explanation. Having said this, some of the best parts of the novel are the little asides that explain both mainstream and obscure parts of cricketing rules and terms – Karunatilaka has a way with these little bits of flash fiction, it’s hard not to smile at his explanations of things like the chinaman, or the Duckworth-Lewis System.

There’s a lot to love with an unreliable narrator. It seems almost a tautology to suggest that any first-person narration should be considered unreliable – no character can possibly know the entire truth about everything – but I think a lot of authors forget this. Fortunately, our narrator in Chinaman, Wije, is a loveable drunkard, who seems to have no qualms about telling lies in order to make his story better. Even better, he free admits this, turning the novel into a game for the reader. How much of his story are we to believe? Is it really possible that Mathew had a six-fingered coach to teach him how to spin the ball? Or that he wasn’t chosen for the nation team simply because he was a Tamil?

Wije is a beautiful character, pitch perfectly sarcastic and curmudgeonly. It is not difficult to imagine this grumpy old man going around the island of Sri Lanka trying to find his white whale, annoying people all around him. The angry old man journalist who has pissed off more people than he can remember is hardly a new archetype, but it’s nice to see it put to such good use here. The tone and style of his narration is a joy to read, perhaps because he is just so angry, or perhaps because he is hilarious in his old age.

Big spoilers for the end follow, so look away now if you want to be surprised. The fact that Wiji is so unreliable, coupled with the fact that no one else seems to be particularly willing or able to offer information about Mathews, led me, for a long time, to wonder whether the player was even real. And after Wije dies, for a few moments, I really believed that he didn’t exist. But as Garfield takes up the story in the final act, and he too realises that Mathews is real, the narrative shifts gears, as we find ourselves in New Zealand. It seems desperately cruel that Garfield should be able to pick up his father’s life’s work with relative ease – and then manage to finish the job by actually finding Mathews.

Perhaps the best thing about sport novels is the fact that the best ones are never really just about sport. And with the best of them, Chinaman, too, is not just about a mysterious cricket player. It is a fascinating look at contemporary Sri Lanka, and how it came to be a country split along ethnic lines. There’s a beautiful section where Wiji is asked to explain the difference between Sinhalese and Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and he is unable to come up with one good difference. And yet, ethnic violence and civil war are never far from the background of the novel, and often spill over into the cricket field, where ethnic politics dictate team selection and game strategy. It’s subtly done, and definitely not the focus of the novel, but it’s that little bit of extra detail that makes the novel seem more whole.

I’ve not yet read any of the other short-listed Commonweath Book Prize novels, but they would have to be really good to top this one. A drunk old man telling us the story of his last days, spent searching for a cricketer that may or may not exist – I don’t think I’ve had this much fun reading a novel in a long time.

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Eleven Seasons (2012) – Paul D CARTER

I love that the Vogel winner is now published the day after the winner is announced. There was, I think, a tendency for the news to be announced and then forgotten under the old system, but now, with the information fresh in our minds, we can go and buy the book the next day. I had at least three customers at work looking for Eleven Seasons the day after the announcement this year, and I was able to palm it off to them immediately.

Jason Dalton loves the Hawthorn Hawks, his local footy team. He’s also a natural player, and despite the protestations of his mother, plays in the local junior teams. As he grows up, though, football becomes a divisive figure in his relationship with his mother, and more and more, he is drawn to a particular crowd of footy players his mother views as less than ideal role models. When their argument comes to a head, and his mother tells him a shocking family secret, Jason only has one option. Run away.

I should start this review by pointing out that I know jack-shit about AFL. Not only am I not from Victoria, but I have little to no interest in most codes of football. Nothing personal – I just don’t get the appeal of lots of sweaty, scantily clad men running around grabbing each other on an often muddy circle of grass. Which is problematic when I read a book which wears its love of AFL on its sleeve. Fortunately, and this is probably the sign of a good writer, Carter makes the story both reliant upon the sport and completely separate. He has a tendency to waffle on about floating drop punts (WHAT EVEN IS THAT?) in his descriptions of the games Jason plays, but for those of us less interested, it’s fairly easy to gloss over some paragraphs before we get back to some meatier character moments.

We rush through Jason’s formative years, but in many ways, this allows Carter to carve off any superfluous incidents and text, giving us a very clear through line. It’s worrying to see just how easy it is for Jason to go over to the dark side, as it were, getting in with the wrong crowd of kids, arguably because his mother is never home to tell him otherwise. No development or step ever seems forced – it’s all presented very logically and clearly, and though we start with an eight year old Jason hanging out with his slightly nerdy best friend, all of a sudden we find him smoking behind the bike shed in high school with a group of young boys that could politely be described as delinquents.

It’s a testament to Carter’s skill that I didn’t want to punch Jason in the face by the end of the novel, because I certainly did for a long time. I know that teenagers are, almost without fail, self-absorbed little shits, but Jason manages to take it to a whole new level. There are, of course, reasons for this. His mother is never home, and without any kind of role model – male or female – he gravitates towards people he thinks are going to give him what he wants, and inevitably, these are not-very-nice people. There’s some almost twee redemption at the end, and it’s almost enough to forgive Jason his many, many sins. Almost.

As Jason grows up, it becomes apparent that football is not just window dressing for the, arguably, simpler coming-of-age story at the heart of the novel. His love of football is contrasted with his mother’s seemingly complete disinterest in the entire affair, and allows for some nice dramatic tension. For a long time, I could sympathise with her – all codes of football are dangerous, and her concern for her son’s safety seemed very in character. As Jason grows up, she also becomes concerned with the kind of people playing with him – again, a legitimate concern, given the situations professional footballers in Australia seem to put themselves in almost every week. And there is a hint that Jason himself could have been caught up in this ridiculous lifestyle, but he always stops himself from going too far. But when the long-promised family secret is revealed, her apathy towards football begins to make a lot more sense.

Does Australian literature need another examination of what makes the beer-guzzling, footy-loving, female-hating Australian male tick? To be honest, probably not. We talk a lot today about crossover fiction – books primarily designed for a young adult audience that are taken up with gusto by adult readers, and Eleven Seasons, in many ways, is part of that movement. I would have no trouble recommending this to reluctant teen male readers, though there are some more subtle messages that will be enjoyed by more adult readers as well.

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