Each time I receive galleys of a new book by an old friend, I pick it up and hold it, like I’m judging the size and weight of a baby. I examine it, checking out the blurbs and the heft, the quotes from poetry or acknowledgments. I like to read good acknowledgments. At last, I roam over the first sentence. If it’s a good lead, I’ll dive right in.
Pat Conroy is an old friend whose books I always yearn to tackle. He almost never lets me down on a killer first sentence, and My Losing Season, about his senior year of basketball at The Cidadel, is no exception. He begins: “I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one.” Almost as good as The Prince of Tides, which began: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
My Losing Season is no Beach Music, which I begged to keep going forever, the story was so gripping, the language so rich, the experiences within poetic comprehension. “My Losing Season” is real. It took place in a year in the distant past, when the writer was a boy and felt like a boy and feared his coach as only a 21-year-old college athlete can fear a man. It unfolds as the season unfolds, beginning with the first practice but not ending with the final blast of the final bell to end the final game. Therein lies the rub. While it resonates with a kind of glory that a reader can find only in a fine work by one of the finest writers operating in the publishing world today, the game continues on and on.
Conroy dissects each game as the boys work to become better and better, as they falter, as they achieve fame and infamy. He constructs the characters one by one, including the coach, Mel Thompson, a fabulous character who reaches heroic status down to the last utterance at Conroy the writer years later. “Guards,” he growls. “I always hated guards.” You can hear the vainglorious snort as he breaths the words.
Although 400 pages about basketball is a pretty heavy load to tote, even for a superior wordsmith like Conroy, he does the best he can at making the sport interesting and colorful, though at times I found myself lagging limp-eyed behind the words.
However, when the writer evokes memories of childhood, he gives his prose new legs to travel with more speed and drive. He remembers the first shot he ever made in Orlando and the time his fifth-grade team beat the sixth. “Basketball allowed me to revere my father without him knowing what I was up to,” he writes. “I took up basketball as a form of homage and mimicry, and like him, I grew up court-savvy and predatory and ready to rumble in any game that came my way.”
While he seeps self deprecation on the court, Conroy pats himself on the back as a kid full of hustle and loyalty, as well he should, because he grew up to be a man filled with great writing talent and a great work ethic, and a person who has never forgotten his friends. And it is not even basketball through which Conroy delivers his drop-dead shot, it is a scene with his beloved high school English teacher who guides him to Shakespeare in order to understand William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and gives him an A+, double-credit, for imagination. It is that scene and others like it that lifts My Losing Season from the shelf of sports books.
My Losing Season is not Beach Music. Neither is it Prince of Tides. It is not meant to be. It is a beautiful heartbreaking story of a boy who tried so hard to prove to his father that he was worthy. When that father abused him or ignored him, Pat Conroy only tried harder -- and the basketball court became the stage where he fought his battles.
With sentences like, “The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life,” Pat Conroy lifts his book to superior storytelling. He might not have been a Bob Cousey or Michael Jordan, but he stands right up there with the best writers in our land. Even with the repetitive nature of the sport, Conroy makes it sing a joyful tune. Still, I’m looking forward to his next novel -- one that’s long and heavy and filled with the life his words always bring to the page.
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