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The Best American Series has been in existence for quite a while now, collecting the best Essays, Short Stories, Poetry, Travel Writing and Sports Writing of each year, as chosen by a guest editor in each category.  I've read a good number of these books and, as with any anthologies, some years are better than others and some stories are better than others.  But as a general rule, you can always find a story or two that make the book worthwhile.  For instance, I happen to have Best American Essays : 1987 (edited by Gay Talese) sitting on a shelf in the bathroom and it includes pieces by Richard Ben Cramer, Tom Wolfe, Calvin Trillin, Donald Hall, Geoffrey C. Ward and a few other greats--even if the rest of the book were dreck, and it is not, it would be worthwhile just for Cramer's piece on Ted Williams.  By contrast, this present volume of Sports Writing from the calendar year 1999 is pretty weak, but there are a few good pieces and it does have the single funniest fishing story I've ever read.

You really need look no farther than guest editor Dick Schaap's Introduction to figure out why the overall quality of the essays is subpar.  Here are a couple of excerpts :

    In assembling this collection, I was struck by how many of the articles I chose are about so-called
    minor or fringe sports, especially X-sports, as they are now called, and how few are really funny.
    Garrison Keillorís bogus ghostwritten autobiography of a wrestler who becomes governor of
    Minnesota is the only determinedly humorous work in the book -- humor in the vein, though not
    quite of the stature, of Ring Lardnerís classic epistolary novel, You Know Me, Al. The story about
    the Kentucky shooting party, ìBlown Away,î is comic but chilling. Several of the other stories have
    witty passages, amusing anecdotes, clever turns of phrase -- words and sentences and paragraphs
    that made me smile or laugh but they are not, essentially, funny.

    ...

    Boxing, historically, has inspired masterful sports writing, fiction and nonfiction, from the Lardners
    to Hemingway to Mailer and Schulberg and Bill Heinz and Joyce Carol Oates, but Iíve never felt
    that the quality of the literature justified the brutality of the sport.  Boxing, strangely enough, is
    missing from this collection, not because of my feelings about the sport but because no boxing story
    measured up to the selections celebrating yachting, skiing, skateboarding, ultra-marathoning,
    shooting, curling, bull-riding, free-falling, distance swimming, bass fishing, motorcycle jumping,
    bowling, cockfighting, and poker playing, some of which are considerably more lethal than boxing.
    Horse racing, which was as big as boxing in the days of Dempsey and Man oí War, Ali and
    Secretariat, does not get a mention. Football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, the
    meat-and-potatoes sports, do, but none of those selections deals with the Super Bowl, the World
    Series, the Final Four, the NBA championships, or the Stanley Cup playoffs. This confirms my
    theory that the larger the event and the more sports reporters in attendance, the less the likelihood
    that the event will generate exceptional stories.

    I am delighted by the number of writers represented whom I had never read before, whom I had
    never heard of, gifted men and, impressively, women, some contributing to obscure journals, some
    to popular publications. I am disappointed by the fact that I didnít see a single newspaper sports
    column as good as the ones Red Smith used to write regularly, perhaps because the columnists today
    have such varied interests -- half of them, it seems, with their own radio shows, half of them
    appearing on television as often as Regis Philbin (who used to cover sports) -- that they feel no
    urgency to make certain that the best of their written works are considered in an annual
    competition.

Let's just deconstruct that briefly : it's a collection by writers you've never heard of;  about sports that no one cares about; that aren't generally funny or fun;  and Roger Angell and Tom Boswell, the two best regular writers on sports, are not included.  Oh yeah...and the choices have a distinctly left-leaning political slant.  Oh, and as near as I can tell, the piece by David Halberstam is only included because he's been a guest editor twice and the Rick Telander piece can only be explained by the fact that he appears on Schaap's show, The Sports Reporters, on ESPN.

Now I don't mean to suggest that you can't write a fine story about skateboarding or free falling or any of these other Gen-X hobbies, but all of these pursuits and several of the others--like cock fighting, poker, yachting, curling, etc.--have a couple of unifying and unappealing characteristics.  They tend to be essentially solitary or cliquish.  They are not activities (notice my reluctance to even refer to them as sports) that are widely participated in, nor followed, by the rest of society. Very few of them have significant traditions, histories or customs.  And their practitioners seem to be almost uniformly sullen, antisocial, and unpleasant.  The question arises : why would we want to get to know them better.

Sport does not easily bear close scrutiny.  There is after all something quite absurd about grown men and women getting all torturing their bodies into shape, getting dressed up in little costumes and then trying to defeat each other at things like hitting a ball with a stick.  In and of themselves, the games that people play don't generally mean much.  But sport plays a vital function in society because it can serve a unifying function, nearly unique in these increasingly atomized times.  As I write, the Mets and the Yankees are engaged in a World Series.  Forget about the baseball games, think of the Subway Series simply in terms of what it means to the city.  For this one week, New York is a genuine community, however tendentious the relations between it's warring factions.  Albeit briefly, the extremely varied population--varied in socioeconomic, ethnic, political and religious terms--has come together to share a common experience, perhaps the only experience that they will all share this year or for years to come.  This is what sport can be in a culture where we each read a different magazine, watch a different TV show, follow a different guru, and so on.  Sort can be, at it's best, the meeting place where we share a common language, common interests, and common passions across generations, genders and classes.

Instead of seeking the stories from 1999 which touch upon these interstices where sport unites us, Schaap seems to have willfully sought stories which describe the mildly colorful, but ultimately depressingly similar, folks who are obsessed with dominating some excessively particular niche of their own.  Sure it's fleetingly interesting that a small group of people run ultra-marathons.  But they come across here as profoundly unhappy and it's hard to shake the notion that they've probably tried and failed at every real sport until they found one so limited in appeal that they could be at least average at it.  I suppose in this day and age there are kids in America who would rather be the best half pipe skateboarder in the world than have a 95 mph fastball, but I've never met one.

Of course, it's not necessarily Dick Schaap's role to try to foster greater community through the selections in this book, but at the same time, he's not above grinding his own political axes.  The Garrison Keillor piece included here is little more than a hatchet job on Jesse Ventura and an excruciatingly unfunny one at that.  After all, how do you parody professional wrestling?  In the Blown Away story which Schaap refers to as "comic but chilling," the comedy and the chills he finds come from the fact that it is about a group of gun enthusiasts with mildly separatist views.  Mind you, these people are virtually indistinguishable in the oddity of their enthusiasms from any of the folks who do things like snowboard or fall off of mountains, but since their oddness is political, we are expected to be horrified somehow.  What struck me was how similar they are to most of the characters profiled here, not how different they are.

Thankfully, there is one story that rescues the collection and, since I couldn't find it on the Web, nearly justifies purchasing the book by itself.  Ay Caramba ! The Fish Drink Tequila Like Goatsuckers by Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Sports Afield, is very funny.  He describes trekking into a remote Mexican lake to fish for bass.  The comedy comes from the fact that, unlike most such fishing tales, where the reward for such effort is to find wild and wily trout or salmon, this lake is so well stocked and under fished that it's nearly impossible not to catch something, and the something are mere garden variety bass : "This is akin to flying to Paris for a Snickers."  Moreover, the region they are in is home to the dreaded chupacabra, supposed five foot tall ogres which suck the blood out of goats and other livestock.  Miles also writes book reviews for Salon and he's someone whose work I'll keep an eye peeled for in the future.

There are enough other decent stories to recommend the book--including an interesting profile of the point guard Jason Williams, the aforementioned cock fighting story by Burkhard Bilger, and a terrific account by former NFL player turned novelist, Pat Toomay, of working on the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday.  But taken as a whole, the stories are kind of depressing, concerning as they do rather isolated groups of people pursuing their own completely individualistic ends in activities that hardly even qualify as sports.  Even where the writing on these subjects is good, I find it hard to believe that they were the Best sports writing of 1999.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Rick Geary (5 books reviewed)
Sports (General)
Rick Geary Links:
    -ARTIST SITE : Rick Geary : Cartoonist--Illustrator
    -Rick Geary Page (NBM Publishing)
    -BIO : Rick Geary (National Lampoon)
    -The Very Odd World of Rick Geary

Book-related and General Links:
    -INDEX : The Best American Sports Writing 1991-2000 (Glenn Stout)
    -BOOK SITE : The Best American Sports Writing : 2000 (FSB Associates)

BURKHARD BILGER :
    -ESSAY : Enter the Chicken (Harper's Magazine, 3/01/99)
    -INTERVIEW : Talking with Burkhard Bilger (An interview by Robert L. Hall, Southern Scribe)
    -INTERVIEW : The Unsung South : Burkhard Bilger talks about the fine line between culture and caricature (Katie Bacon, Atlantic Monthly)

DANIEL COYLE :
    -ESSAY : Peerless : In the Church of the Moment, that swaggering and sacred place just beyond the steep couloirs of Whistler, the congregation knows no fear. Save for that silent penitent in the corner, who knows it well, honors it wisely, and then beats the living devil out of it. (Daniel Coyle, Outside Online)

MICHAEL FINKEL :
    -ESSAY : Running Like Hell (Michael Finkel, Women's Sports and Fitness, Nov./Dec. 1999)

STEVE FRIEDMAN :
    -Rudy Revs Photo Page (Action Bowlers)
    -ARTICLE : Kasimakis: Let the good times roll  (Michael Hiestand, USA Today, Thursday, April 1, 1999)

DAVID HALBERSTAM :
    -ESSAY : He Got a Shot in the NBA, and It Went In (DAVID HALBERSTAM, NY Times, February 7, 1999)

JAMES HIBBERD :
    -ESSAY : Poker Face (James Hibberd, Phoenix New Times)

GARRISON KELLIOR :
    -REVIEW : of Me  By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente,  Governor of Minnesota.  As told to Garrison Keillor (Peter Applebome, NY Times Book Review)

JEFF MACGREGOR
    -INTERVIEW : Less Than Murder: An Inside Look (CNN/SI)

JONATHAN MILES :
    -Sports Afield (Contributing Editor)
    -ARCHIVES : Jonathan Miles (Salon.com)
    -ESSAY : Hill-Country Cookout : Mississippi chef John Currence celebrates independence day by setting up the horseshoe toss, firing up the grill and mixing up a batch of...mojitos? (Jonathan Miles, Food and Wine)
    -Chupacabra Home Page

CHARLES P. PIERCE :
    -ESSAY : Bottom of the Ninth (Charles P. Pierce, Esquire)

PAT TOOMAY :
    -ESSAY : Clotheslined :    A novelist and former Dallas Cowboy tells all about working on "Any Given Sunday" with Oliver Stone, Jim Brown, Y. A. Tittle, and Al Pacino. (Pat Toomay, SportsJones Magazine,  December 21, 1999)

CRAIG VETTER :
    -ESSAY : Terminal Velocity : Call it inevitable that Dan Osman found the fatal edge of his signature sport, a thing known as "free-falling." But were his leaps of faith ù and thus his sad death ù as profound as he imagined? Or just stunt taken to foolish extremes?  (Outside Online)

GENERAL :
    -REVIEW : of Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. By Robert D. Putnam (Margaret Talbot, NY Times Book Review)

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