December 18, 2018, 22:16

What We’re Reading This Week |

What We’re Reading This Week |

“SportsWorld: An American Dreamland,” by Robert Lipsyte

The anger voiced by a segment of American sports fandom this past
year—directed at, among other targets, players kneeling during the
national anthem to protest inequality and police brutality—reminded me
of a line from the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte: “the fans are getting
meaner every day.” He wrote this in 1975, in “SportsWorld,” a
semi-Marxist critique of American athletic culture that remains fresh
and essential today. (Long out of print, a new edition will be
published in May.)
Of those mean fans, he continues, “All that repressed assembly-line
rage, those fears of foreclosure, fears of premature ejaculation, fears
of occupational cancer, those orchestrated fears of women, blacks, the
young, the old, are spilling out of the grandstand onto the field, the
ice, the hardwood.” One might be tempted to hail this as prescience—a
foreshadowing of Donald Trump’s use of sports as a distraction and
political wedge—if it weren’t, instead, evidence of just how little the
culture has changed since the seventies.

In his book, Lipsyte identifies the paradox of a country that was
obsessed with professional sports but that also seemed—owing to issues
regarding race, gender, class, and envy—to hate many of the people who
excelled at them. The paradox lives on. It’s there in the way certain
fans gripe constantly about players’ high salaries, siding somehow with
the billionaires who own their favorite teams against the millionaires
who perform on the field. It’s there in the talk of how athletes ought
to be grateful to be where they are and make as much as they do. It’s
there in the way someone could wear a jersey with a player’s name on it
and not want to hear what that player might have to say. It’s in the
fact that New England could boo the wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the son
of a marine, when he kneeled before a game in September, and then cheer
for him wildly a few hours later when he caught the game-winning

“SportsWorld” gives the lie to any notion that sports and politics ever
occupied separate spheres in America. Lipsyte writes about Richard
Nixon’s minor career as a college football player, an anecdote that
seems particularly apt when considering the current occupant of the
White House, and the political movement that he represents. Nixon, he
writes, “had never gotten over missing the varsity cut, and I suddenly
understood that his only goal had been getting his letter, not playing
the game. He was more interested in being known as a winner than in
playing.” It is in that other thing, the simple and wonderful act of
playing, that Lipsyte, despite his withering analysis of the country’s
sports obsession, finds hope: “Yet for all the cynicism and oppression
and betrayal, the rhythms of sport, the sensations, and the emotions,
are often the most intense and pleasurable ever experienced.”—Ian Crouch

“Paradise of the Blind,” by Duong Thu Huong

When I travel, I try to read books set in the country I’m visiting, or
written by local authors. For a trip to Vietnam last month, I chose
“Paradise of the Blind,” by Duong Thu Huong, which, in 1988, became the
first Vietnamese novel to be widely published in the United States. The
book is narrated by a young woman named Hang, who tells the story of the
vast land redistribution that was undertaken in Vietnam starting in
1953, how of how the corruption of the Communist state led to turmoil
within her own family. Hang’s landowner aunt, Communist-officer uncle,
and working-class mother fight, hold grudges, and vie for Hang’s
loyalty, projecting their respective visions for the future of the
country onto her. Hang, quiet and conflicted, deals with the tension and
guilt passively. Food is a central theme in the novel, and Huong uses
the family’s interactions with food and its scarcity to demonstrate the
fraught relationships between the characters. In one scene, Hang’s
mother, Que, cannot afford to eat, and asks her neighbor Vi for che, a
sticky rice pudding that is often served for the Lunar New Year. The way
Vi describes the dish (“It tastes just as it should—like a coconut cake
grilled over a fire”) communicates her pity and also her affection for
her friend. Enticed by this description, I ordered che at a food stall
in Hanoi toward the end of my trip. It was soft and chewy like mochi,
filled with black sesame seeds and grated coconut, topped with sweet
coconut milk and crushed peanuts. My first taste brought me closer to
Huong’s book and to my surroundings.—Michele Moses

“The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B.,” J. P. Donleavy

Having missed out on a trip to Ireland because of the bomb cyclone, I
spent the snowy weekend sulking and re-visiting J. P. Donleavy’s 1968
novel about a sexually rambunctious young aristocrat named Balthazar,
who, in the years following the Second World War, attends Trinity
College Dublin. There he ponders carnality and philosophy with his randy
sidekick, Beefy, and hunts for love, both momentary and lasting, in all
the right and wrong places—a tragicomic search that he continues after
getting expelled. What I remembered from the first time that I read
“Beatitudes,” seven or eight years ago, was the whirl of words:
throughout his career, Donleavy, who died in September, at the age of
ninety-one, rarely deviated from his trademark literary style, which was
rich in fragments, staccato rhythms, time leaps, scrolling dialogue
uninterrupted by attribution, and joyfully bawdy turns of phrase. On
this re-reading, though, the book seemed more carefully plotted, and
much sadder. The action is episodic (and many of the more memorable
episodes revolve around erotic interludes or attempted interludes), but
the vignettes are cleverly and calculatedly structured. And they
escalate, drawing Balthazar closer to a lonely realization about love
and the need to be loved.—Susannah Kemple


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