September-October (2021) reads

The weather has gotten warmer, and Australians everywhere have lined up for the COVID vaccine. Meanwhile, I have consumed the requisite trio of reads for another list. Adrian McKinty’s I Hear the Sirens in the Street was the first text. Set in Ireland during the troubles, McKinty perfectly captures the zeitgeist of 1980’s Hibernia. I followed this up with a rare foray into an eBook. David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game has been hyped as one of the finest books ever written about basketball. To be honest, I was a wee bit disappointed. Finally, I browsed through Consider the Lobster, another nonfiction title. This was my first encounter with David Foster Wallace and his maximalist prose required a paradigm shift on my part.

  • I Hear the Sirens in the Street (McKinty). This volume represents the second entry in the author’s Sean Duffy series. Set mostly in Northern Ireland c. 1982, the author paints a bleak, destitute nation on the grips of a silent war. The police force, which includes, Duffy, is hated. Riots are commonplace. The weather is dreary, and the future is not looking up. Anyone with half a brain has already left for Britain or the US. The coppers have learned to live with the guerrillas. 

A murder case falls on Duffy’s plate, involving a dismembered body. Another case, seemingly connected, involves the murder of a comrade. Duffy visits the widow to gain some answers. Meanwhile, an automobile manufacturer holds most of the jobs in the area. The authorities take a hands-off approach to said company because of its economic value to Northern Ireland. When Duffy starts poking his head in the business, he is told to back off. Could there be a connection between the slain officer and the enterprise, a beacon of hope in the sorry state?   

Regardless, Duffy – determined detective that he is – buys a ticket to the States. He craves to know what’s hiding in a safety deposit box in Beantown. Upon inspecting the goods, that’s when things get dicey. Throughout the novel, we could feel Duffy’s unbridled resolve to solve the cases. His superior, his underlings, even movers and shakers will not deter him. McKinty’s dry British humour is also apparent. Everyone is either overweight and clumsy or underfed and irascible. I chucked upon reading that a plump detective’s notes on a whole case barely filled half a sheet. He also had a noticeable gut. The author is also quite aware of his time: the Falklands, the guerrillas, the 1982 World Cup, the jargon, the despondent atmosphere, even the weather. Altogether an enjoyable read but at times, he needs to cut down on his description. 

Rating: 4.5/5

  • The Breaks of the Game (Halberstam). I was really looking forward to this one. Since Breaks was first published in 1980, it’s hard to find a copy these days. I settled for the soft version instead. The book chronicles the 1979-1980 season of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers. A trying one, the franchise was just three years removed from a world championship. The author chronicles the squad’s injuries, disappointments, draft picks, contract disputes, and rigorous schedule. I didn’t like how Halberstam mentions Bill Walton too much. The latter was the cornerstone, the star centre of the Blazers. Although he played a huge role in putting the franchise on the map, he wasn’t on the team during the 1980 season. He had been traded to the San Diego Clippers during the offseason. At times, this seems more a book on Walton’s foot trouble than an insider’s look into the NBA. 

Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer for his Vietnam War reporting, did his research and it shows. He talks about league salaries like a general manager. He dissects the science of injuries. He gives scouting reports as though he were on the sidelines. The author discusses Madison Avenue at length. Not only does he underscore the league’s TV contracts; he provides much background. Halberstam even explores the Oregonian weather. Most importantly, he anatomises racial tensions. He canvasses the transformation of the league from an all-white enterprise into a predominantly black locus. The injustice is laid bare: the young, wealthy owners were all white and so was the management, including the coaches, officials, and referees. The blacks, who had the skills and the names, had to conform to the status quo. He also depicts Larry Fleischer, the pioneer agent who revolutionised the league.

The text is full of profiles, from ballplayers to scouts, team staff to league personas. The author outlines Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics. He opined that they were more than a team; they were a family. He even takes a nudge at the ageing Boston Garden. Indeed, we get an early look into the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry.  Jack Ramsay, the Blazers’ coach, is foregrounded. He is depicted as a tactician who gets the most out of his charges. That year, his best players were either gone, injured, or unwilling to play. Still, the team started out hot and won the first nine outings. He encourages his boys despite an extended losing spell. By season’s end, star players Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins were both traded. He turned to Billy Ray Bates, a great one-on-one player who looked out of place in Ramsay’s team-first, pass-friendly offence. Ramsay willed the squad to the playoffs, where they fell to Seattle.

Halberstam’s writing has been praised for being well-research, very detailed, and for having a commendable voice. I have mixed feelings about this one. I liked it for being basketball centred but I disliked the Bill Walton overload. I admired his storytelling ability, but his constant use of lists annoyed me. Every paragraph seemed to have one. After a while, I simply got used to them. While the book captures the fledgling league, the scope of narrative is over forty years old. This is not the first Halberstam I’ve unearthed. I perused the ambitious Jordan biography, Playing for Keeps, many moons ago. Purely from a research standpoint, Breaks is an A1 output. While this hoops book was worthwhile, it’s good for a one-time read.

‘For basketball demanded that though the players be talented, they also subordinate their individual talents to the idea of team and to each other.’

Rating: 4.4/5

  • Consider the Lobster (Wallace). The author’s posthumous deification intrigued me. This writer penned a three-pound book and his fiction is very distinctive. Others have asserted that regarding his nonfiction pieces is a better place to start, given how much more accessible they are. There are ten essays in this collection, most of them published in various outlets. Wallace’s writing is such that I did not finish all of the essays. Why? He makes extensive use of footnotes, which disrupt the reading experience. He uses a pompous vocabulary, which I guess is the mark of MacArthur grantee. His sentences are practically paragraphs. Lastly, all the essays were penned about two decades ago, making them almost irrelevant. 

The first story, Big Red Son, comprised the only long read that I crested. The article deals with Wallace’s coverage of the AVA. The next essay was on John Updike who, like Wallace, has since passed away. There was another piece on American English that was too dense for my liking. I did finish his musings on 9/11 in a small Midwest town. The writeup was titled, ‘The View from Mrs Thompson’s’. I then went through his review of Tracy Austin’s memoir. Given his tennis background, this was tolerable. I decided not to finish the next article, a lengthy, mind-numbing piece. I enjoyed the titular essay, wherein the author debates if lobsters feel pain. I admit though that the second half was getting too philosophical. The Dostoyevsky piece was the last one I crested. The long radio article in the end was not worthwhile and I gave up after fifteen pages.   

In general, audiences have rated this well. As you can see, I found parts of the book unreadable. If this is the feel of Wallace’s nonfiction, then spare a thought for his fiction. Personally, I wouldn’t rate this as highly. To be honest, I was tossing between this item and Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. The latter is the first in his Arkady Renko series. While perusing the Updike read, I admitted to picking the wrong book. However, credit must be given for his research and interview skills. He was able to pen at least two articles while not even being an insider. The collection was also of varied interest, so not everything was philosophical or grammatical. Altogether, I felt disappointed; this text is on par with the two Chatwin’s I reviewed earlier this year.

Rating: 3.8/5

Blazers, the 1977 NBA champs
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