Sunday, April 4, 2010

On the Coffee Table: Pat Conroy

I have just finished My Losing Season by Pat Conroy, a book lent to me by one of the PE teachers at school. The book is the novelist's account of his experiences playing basketball, focusing particularly on his senior year at The Citadel. Conroy was a point guard, a position with responsibilities which he took very seriously.

I see the sports world as a great confluence of stories. Every game is a story. Every player has a story. Every team, every season, every coach, etc. Indeed, every fan has a story as well and that is the overarching theme of my blog. Most of the stories are lost over time. Games are reduced to box scores. An entire era is reduced to a year-by-year list of champions. A book like My Losing Season reaffirms my belief that even a point guard on a losing team in a minor Division I conference has a story to tell, even if he does not possess Conroy's narrative capacities.

Pat Conroy has, in his life, been two things which I would dearly love to have been: a college basketball player and a successful novelist. And yet, I don't think I would trade my life for his if given the chance. I have never read any of his novels but the film Prince of Tides clearly displayed the themes which I know run through his work. I'm sure I carry issues from my own childhood but they pale in comparison with Conroy's burdens. I encountered Prince of Tides at a time in my life when I was already beginning to tire of stories in which the protagonist blamed all of his problems on his parents. But the more one learns of Conroy's own relationship with his violently abusive father, the more one understands the need to exorcise demons by whatever means necessary.

I find it interesting that the last two sports books I have read both deal in depth with complicated father relationships. However, while Andre Agassi came to see tennis as a burden, basketball was Conroy's salvation. His love for the sport is clear throughout the book. His detailed recollection of games going back to high school is remarkable. He does a very good job of bringing the reader into the heated emotional moments of a basketball game. True to form, he spares no detail in outlining the darker aspects of his life growing up. But he never dwells for too long. The joy of the game becomes an escape for the reader as well.

I also find it interesting that such troubled young men as Conroy and Agassi survived the demons of their childhoods by seeking out and finding positive male role models outside of their homes. For Agassi, it was his trainer, Gil Reyes. Conroy found many teachers and professors on his journey who nurtured his spirit and talent. As a teacher, I see a lot of kids whose lives could be improved tremendously by having a better relationship with a father figure. I feel blessed that a few have sought to find that relationship in me and I hope that I have done well by them. I know from experience that, in particular, the boys who seek out such role models stand a far better chance of success in life than those who don't. That certainly has been the case for Conroy and Agassi, and probably numerous other athletes.

On page 323, Conroy writes "My life is chock-full of madelines that send me reeling back on tides of pure consciousness to moments in my life lit up with consequence." I have My Wife to thank for my appreciation of the literary allusion. Madelines are a reference to the first chapter of Marcel Proust's The Search for Lost Time, not the sort of thing a lightweight reader such as myself would normally pick up. My Wife, however, devours books. She tackles writers such as Proust, Tolstoy and Herodotus with gusto. She "made me" read Swann's Way, book one of Proust's epic and as such, I know what madelines and Proustian memories are all about. This, my friends, is a perfect example of why it's important to marry someone with interests different from your own.

And so, I do recommend the book, but only if you have the stomach to read about domestic violence and military college brutality.

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