Yesterday my friend Yakut emailed me the article “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in the New York Times’ Play Magazine on August 20, 2006 (available here). Wallace penned an immaculate piece on Roger Federer, who also happens to be my favorite tennis player these days. As per his custom, Wallace resorts to 17 footnotes, provides detailed accounts of what he terms “Federer Moments” from the Nadal v. Federer Wimbledon Final of 2006, comments – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course – on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the tournament’s rules. It is a great ode to Federer, and contains a healthy rebuke of Nadal – who happens to be my least favorite pro these days. If you’re a tennis – and DFW – fan, enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster, and do not have the guts to restart Infinite Jest just yet, but would like to continue reading some brilliant prose, you should definitely check it out.
With my personal sport of choice – professional basketball – surging towards the playoffs, I felt a need to read about sports. I needed to read about jocks and sweat and champions and the like.Instead, I read about gambling. And politics.Oh, and a little bit of about sports.(First, though, an aside. I read three books this month – not very many, I know, but it was a shorter month. One of them was To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.Yes, it was better than Hey Rube. But with To Kill a Mockingbird being selected as South Dakota’s “The Big Read” selection for this year, I figured it would be getting as much press as it could handle [“No, he’s not being ironic. Corey is from South Dakota” — Max]. So I’m going with number two.Back to the review.)Really, Hey Rube, a collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s ESPN.com columns, isn’t about sports at all. It’s about gambling, mostly, with a little counter-culture political rants thrown in to balance things out. There’s a fair bit about his friends, all of which involves gambling and politics. Still, every once in a while Thompson brings it back to sports.The primary focus of Thompson’s rants usually leans towards the NFL – widely though of as “the gamblers’ league” – and with rightful cause. Here you’ll delve into the mind of a degenerate gambler; one who understands the subtle difference between getting 10 points against the Colts compared to a measly 9. You’ll begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a man that loves his friends, but loves even more to take their money.Above all, though, you’ll see the fine line between politics and sports. While both seem incredibly different, you’ll find they’re not – at their cores, both subjects are nearly identical. Both deal with competing forces that, often times, exhibit nearly opposite styles. Both find themselves hotly debated at all times of the day, regardless of a person’s knowledge or competency in the subject. The only real difference is that political leaders are chosen, while in sports the leaders are determined after a long and brutal physical battle.In fact, politics would be a lot more interesting if they adopted the “physical battle” concept.Hey Rube is not for the faint of heart. It’s vitriolic. It’s spit out with a forked tongue. It’s full of anti-administration propaganda and cursing. Never before has anyone felt so pained while talking about his favorite sport. Thompson rages that “watching the Baltimore Ravens play football is like watching scum freeze on the eyeballs of a jackass,” a line that is as true a sports criticism as “steroids ruined baseball” or “the NFL Pro Bowl is no longer relevant.”The odd thing is how attractive he makes everything sound, while at the same time seemingly hating every minute of it. Thompson’s obsession with gambling, football, and his own twisted thoughts sounds unnatural. It is. Still, Hey Rube left me longing to join him. It couldn’t have been that horrible to hang out and watch football with Thompson, except for the fact that you might get shot.Or even worse – you might be convinced to run a marathon with Sean Penn.Listen, we all miss Hunter. It’s still incredibly chic to mention his name and blabber on incessantly about how he was a literary genius and how he’ll never be replaced.In all actuality, this is not Thompson’s best book. It’s fractured, and it’s not in his usual wheelhouse. But it is very good. And if you like sports more than politics, as I do, you’ll find more pleasure in Hey Rube than you might find in any of his campaign memoirs.And as far as his genius is concerned, well, it’s true. He was a genius. He filled a specific niche that not everyone respected – and that’s fine. Some like him, some revere him, and others can’t stand him. That’s all part of his shtick. Regardless of your feelings, you have to admit he made an impact.Even if it was only by pointing out the importance of never betting against Duke basketball.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpFebruary 2006 CVBoMCJanuary 2006 CVBoMC
I’m not really one to analyze the New York Times Book Review, but I noticed that the section got a couple of mentions in the journalism industry magazine Editor & Publisher. The first points out that the section’s online version has introduced a new bestseller list, one devoted to politics. The usefulness of such lists aside, the introduction of a politics list highlights how important these books – often little more than lengthy screeds coming from the Left or Right – have become to the bottom line for the publishing industry. From the New York Times’ point of view, it’s “‘The more best-seller lists, the better,’ Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P.”Separately, E&P published a piece about the glowing review that the Times gave to The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by its own columnist Frank Rich. As E&P puts it: Ian Buruma, the well-known author, in a front-page review, offers enthusiastic praise both for the book and most of Rich’s commentary, which is extremely critical of the media for shirking its watchdog role in the runup to the Iraq war. The Times itself gets hit by its own columnist.So, to recap, the Times praises a book which is critical of the Times but is written by a Times columnist. It’s a small world, no?
Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while know that during the summer I tend to pen the occasional post about baseball. Feel free to skip them if you like, but I just can’t help myself. Now, on with it. In Chicago, I’m finding that the start of baseball season seems to awaken a collective joy across the city. Riding the El on Friday, I was startled by the conductor’s gleeful announcement that the slowness of our train was due to the Cubs home opener. I also learned that the Cubs typically eschew night games at Wrigley Field because, essentially, night games would wake up the neighbors. Most modern stadiums are surrounded by moats of asphalt, but ancient Wrigley is nestled into a city block and surrounded by rowhouses and city traffic and streets lined with bars and diners. Driving north on Clark Street, the stadium explodes into view, surrounded on game day by throngs of fans. A whole section of the city turns into a clamoring carnival of baseball ferment. And then, a few blocks beyond, one returns to quiet streets lined with leafy trees and brick three flats. In the past few days I have noted the pleasure with which the Cubs fan declares that the season has returned. In my experience, they don’t talk about the team’s chances this year or the strength of the bullpen or anything pulled from the sports pages, they talk about how it feels to have baseball back. They tell me that it’s so great to see people drinking beer in Cubs gear on their front porches and shouting “hey” to fans walking to the game. But mostly they sort of cock their heads back so as to gather in some springtime sun, still new enough to be a novelty. In Chicago, baseball doesn’t just mean baseball, it means that the gloomy, icy, sunless winter is over. No more trudging through the ankle-deep snow in the pre-dawn darkness to the El, and no more returning by the same route – stepping in the same holes my feet made that morning – in darkness to a home whose clanging radiators provide a cozy warmth, which, over time, simply seems to be the temperature they have set for your prison cell. But, if you see Cubs fans marching through Wrigleyville, all that can be put to rest and forgotten until October, a whole baseball season away from now. There are some grizzled Chicago vets who insist to me that we’re not out of the woods yet, that April chills and snows are not unheard of, but I ignore them because, well, baseball is here!(I should note that my already considerable happiness at the return of baseball season has been further enhanced by the book I’m reading right now, a collection of baseball writing by the incomparable Roger Angell called Game Time : A Baseball Companion)