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A couple of years ago, Steven Pressfield wrote a terrific novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae  ()  (read Orrin's review, Grade: A+), and followed it up with a pretty good novel about Alcibiades, Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War (2000)  (read Orrin's review, Grade: B+).  Plus, I'm a golfer and a golf fan, so I was fully prepared to set aside my skepticism about another mystic golf book (having loathed Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy) and give this one a fair shot.  I was still disappointed.

The story is set at a magnificent golf course on Krewe Island near Savannah, Georgia.  In need of a big publicity stunt to offset the effects of the Depression, the owners decide to stage a $20,000, 36 hole match between golf legends Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.  In order to appease locals who are upset about the tumult this will cause, a native Savannahian is added to the match, a war hero and storied athlete with the unlikely name of Rannulph Junnah.  He is reluctant to take part but agrees at the behest of his mysterious black friend, Bagger Vance, who offers to caddie for him.

Junnah, badly out of practice and drinking too much, has been shattered by his wartime experiences.  After the war he even visited the families of the eleven Germans he killed and married the sister of one, though she is now deceased, and their daughter lives in Germany with her grandmother.  But Bagger Vance's motive is not necessarily for Junnah to win the match, or even to contend, rather, he wants to use it to teach him about life.  Specifically, he wants to demonstrate the existence of what he refers to as the Authentic Swing and the importance of discovering it and trusting it :

    'I believe that each of us possesses, inside ourselves,' Bagger Vance began, 'one true Authentic
    Swing that is ours alone.  It is folly to try to teach another, or mold us to some ideal version of the
    perfect swing.  Each player possesses only that one swing that he was born with, that swing which
    existed within him before he ever picked up the club,  Like the state of David, our Authentic Swing
    already exists, concealed within the stone, so to speak.'

    Keeler broke in with excitement.  'Then our task as golfers, according to this line of thought...'

    '...is simply to chip away all that is inauthentic, allowing our Authentic Swing to emerge in its
    purity.'

There's much more along those lines and things get even freakier as the day goes along, with Vance revealing himself to be a God, one with a really good golf game.  Of course, this being a sports book, Junnah gets off to a decidedly shaky start but by the end of the match has a chance to win.  And in an awkward framing device, the story is narrated by an elderly man who was a caddie that day as he tries to convince a young man not to abandon his medical school studies.  It does not take a whole lot of imagination to figure out how these parallel story lines turn out.

Now, I'm as susceptible to a hokey sports story as anybody; put it in the VCR right now and I'll sit on the edge of my seat to see who wins the big game in Hoosiers.  And I don't mind a little supernatural mumbo jumbo; give me Shoeless Joe or Damn Yankees or Angels in the Outfiield any day.  Heck, I don't even mind a little Eastern Philosophy thrown in--Iron and Silk, Zen in the Art of Archery, etc.  But put them all together, and offer us no surprises, and it gets a little tedious.

Pressfield's talent as a writer shines through--except when he slides into philosophical gobbledy gook--and the period setting in particular is handled deftly.  But I have four very specific objections to the novel.  First, Jones and Hagen are the two most interesting characters in the book; they're the ones we want to know more about.  And it's simply implausible that even with God on his side some drunken yokel would beat these two guys.

Second, there's one golf moment in the book which really seems too violate the spirit of all that Pressfield has been saying about the beauty of the game and about sport in general.  After he's gotten back into the match, Junnah's ball moves when he's addressing it and he's forced to take a penalty.  Pressfield emphasizes the honor he demonstrates in that moment, but the obvious touch here, perfectly consistent with the sporty character he displays throughout, would be for Hagen to nudge his ball too to even things up, with Jones then following suit.  Their willingness to take advantage of a purely flukish happenstance against this amateur just doesn't seem sporting.

Third, there's a completely insipid tone of pacifism and one-world twaddle underlying certain parts of the story.  It reaches hilarious lengths when the black student tells about a family trip to New York City where :

    My dad carried us up there on Amtrak, to see the Statue of Liberty and the U.N. He wanted to show
    us our legacy as Americans.

Huh?  The U.N.? You show me the American who thinks of that bureaucratic den of thieves and blowhards as an integral part of our national legacy.

Finally though, what's most troubling is the antihuman nature of the Authentic Swing.  I really hate the idea, common in Eastern Philosophy, that the things which we humans can achieve exist beyond ourselves, rather than being products of our ingenuity, effort and application of the will to succeed.  We've all had those experiences when we're "in the groove" and something really difficult, like hitting a golf ball, comes almost effortlessly and seemingly without thought  For that brief time, it is possible to believe that we've tapped into something external or something primordially internal.  But to believe this seems to me to completely underestimate ourselves and our species and I find it repellent.  The conceit here, that by tapping into the Authentic Swing this hack can beat two of the greatest golfers who ever lived, just seems silly.  Even if such a thing existed, let's assume that Bobby Jones was nearly always utilizing it.

I honestly wish I liked the book more and I think the movie could be decent, especially if they whack the modern frame, emphasize the two real golf greats and minimize the philosophizing.  And I suppose that if you haven't seen every old sports movie and read every classic sports book it might not seem quite so derivative (Junnah even has a hand carved driver, like Roy Hobbes's bat Wonder Boy in The Natural.)  As is, I can only give it the most feeble of recommendations and most of that derives from the excellent old time atmosphere, the portrayals of Jones and Hagen and the inherent drama that even awful sports stories have built in by the dynamic of the games.  Any time someone wins and someone loses, you've got drama.  This particular drama just isn't all that compelling.  I strongly recommend that you read Gates of Fire instead.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

Steven Pressfield (6 books reviewed)
Sports (Golf)
Steven Pressfield Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Steven Pressfield
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Steven Pressfield (IMDB)
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel (Random House)
    -VIDEO: Mini Documentary on Killing Rommel (YouTube)
    -ARTICLE: Bruckheimer Adapting Pressfield’s Killing Rommel (BeyondHollywood, 9/03/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Steven Pressfield (Hugh Hewitt Show)
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign ( StevenPressfield.com)
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (Random House)
    -ESSAY: Tribalism is the real enemy in Iraq (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, 6/18/06, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -ESSAY: Why We Will Never See Democracy in the Middle East (Steven Pressfield, September 11, 2006, ABC News)
    -ESSAY: Theme and Character in the Historical Novel (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, Historical Novel Society)
    -INTERVIEW: The art of the art of war (Steven Martinovich, November 15, 2004, Enter Stage Right)
    -INTERVIEW: Gates Of Fire: Richard Lee talks to Steven Pressfield about his new novel (Historical Novel Society)
    -ARCHIVES: "steven pressfield" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield (Ray Palen, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Tony Perry, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steven D. Laib, Intellectual Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Chet Edwards, Defense and National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Paul Katx, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steve Terjeson, Ezine)
    -REVIEW: of Killng Rommel (Norm Goldman, American Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Andrew Lubin, Military Writers)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Armchair General)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Mary Ann Smyth, Book Loons)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jeff Valentine, Bella)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (John Boyd, Kliat)
    -REVIEW: of Kiliing Rommel (Michael Lee, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan War ( Lisa Ann Verge, Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Scott Oden)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign ( N.S. Gill, About.com)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Critical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/articles/1004/1004virtuesofwar.htmBy Steven Pressfield (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War (Helen South, About.com)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War(Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interes)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Great expectations: Four new biographies suggest that the more we write about Alexander the Great, the less we understand him (Rory Stewart, January 8, 2005, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Legend of Bagger Vance (Harper Collins)
    -REVIEW: of THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE Golf and the Game of Life. By Steven Pressfield. (Dave Kindred, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Bagger Vance (GREG MIDLAND,  Associate Editor, GOLFonline)
    -REVIEW : of Bagger Vance (Links4Golfers.com)
    -REVIEW : of Bagger Vance (BuffGolf Book Reviews)
    -CHAT: A Review of Steven Pressfield's "Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War" (Classics-L)
    -REVIEW: of Tides of War (SUSAN HALL-BALDUF - Knight Ridder Newspapers)
    -REVIEW: of Tides of War (Newt Gingrich, Newt,org)
    -REVIEWS: of Tides of War (Epinions)
    -REVIEW: of GATES OF FIRE By Steven Pressfield (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Mary Lefkowitz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Denver Post Wire Services)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Curled Up)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEWS: of Gates of Fire (Epinions)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Steven Zoraster)
 

FILM :
    -Official Movie Site : DreamWorks SKG Fansite : Bagger Vance

Comments:

"Eastern philosophy" teaches that everything we accomplish is "beyond ourselves?" Did you ever read any of it on your own? Or are you still coasting along on all that wisdom you picked up in freshman year survey courses there at Colgate, the New Jerusalem of Western Values? To take the most outstanding example, Zen practice has rightly been summed up as "pay attention." Unremitting hard work is hardly an American innovation. Listen to any U.S. sportscast. Sheer talent is invoked ad nauseaum as the key to success.

- ernest deschoening

- Feb-10-2007, 22:52

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I completely disagree with Orrin's take on The Legend of Bagger Vance. The point of the story is the age-old question, "what do we do with our lives?" This question is answered throughout the book, through the different characters that grace the pages. On the jacket of the book it clearly states Golf and the Game of Life. To mimimize the golfing ability of Junah (he was an alternate on the Walker Cup team) and call him a hack is just plain wrong. Any scratch golfer can attest to being able to play (at least once in their life) spectacular golf. This is what Junah did and he was able to do it because he took the advice from Bagger. Empty yourself and hit the ball with what is left. This is almost the same thing Dr. Rotella teaches his pupils and they all play on the PGA tour. Orrin's review speaks to his pronounced disbelief in the supernatural. This is a shame. If the reader allows themselves to believe in the story as it is told, they will be taken on a journey that ends with Michael -whom I suggest is the main character- finding who he really is. Orrin's review is obviously old, since the movie came out years ago. The movie did little justice to the real love story that is found in the book. Namely, the love Bagger has for all of His creation. Hollywood had to turn it into a love story between a man and a woman and it totally diluted the point of Junah, Michael and anyone else who is struggling to find themselves in the world in which they live. Pressfield has obviously struggled in his life and to use golf as a forum for this type of discussion was incredibly poignant. I simply loved this book and read it once a year.

- Stephen Koepke

- Nov-09-2006, 15:03

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