It’s difficult to pin down the “Rules of the Game.” One might expect an anthology of “The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine” to be easily defined: small in type-face, varied in subject matter, and somehow grand. Because one would think – or at least I would think – that any sports writing published in a magazine like Harper’s must surely have some further-reaching implications, some necessary comment to make on society at large.
Thankfully, this is only partly the case. The best of the 28 stories collected in “Rules of the Game” are quirky, literary, and decidedly specific. (Rigorously selected from the 29 or so pieces of sports writing published in the entire history of Harper’s?). If these stories say anything expansive or ambitious, it is only because they are poignantly written – and the best writing, whether poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, everything-else writing or sports writing can’t help but speak to universal truths.
The gems in “Rules of the Game” are spaced nicely through the book. And like any anthology, the reward comes not from taking these in stories consecutively, but from reading them here and there. It took three months of carrying a copy around in my backpack before I felt comfortable enough to write this review. And even now, I haven’t quite read everything.
When I first pick up an anthology, I’m drawn to the authors I know and love. There is no shortage of them here: the cover boasts contributions from George Plimpton and Mark Twain, among others. And their stories, as expected, live up to the hype. Plimpton writes a wry, but adoring profile of an arranged meeting between poet Marianne Moore and heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali (they write a poem together.)
Twain’s contribution is a nostalgic little essay called Hunting the Deceitful Turkey. Toward the end of his life, Twain tells the story of a younger version of himself, engaged in a fierce battle of wits and endurance with a mamma-bird. “Lie low, keep still, don’t expose yourselves; I shall be back as soon as I have beguiled this shabby swindler out of the country,” Twain imagines the bird telling her young ones.
Fellow cover-boy Pat Jordan’s profile of former can’t miss baseball project Toe Nash is an eerie and disconcerting meditation on the way myths are often built on self-prescribed ignorance, and can thus be quickly shattered. But for the most part, my favorite stories in “Rules of the Game” are not those written by its most famous contributors. They are, like Twain’s turkey and Jordan’s power-hitting outfielder, defined by time, place, and very specific characterization.
The title of Nicholas Bethell’s 1973 profile of Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky at first seems overwrought: A Poisoned Russian King. And the story itself, 90 pct of which seems to take place, inside Spassky’s brilliant, self-critical mind, appears doubly ambitious. But it all works perfectly. Spassky is fresh off a loss to American champion Bobby Fischer and he can’t stop thinking about it – he can’t stop thinking period. In this way, he is a lot like a fiction writer, or a slightly Zen Philip Roth character. And perhaps this is why he makes such a great subject. We see the poison in Spassky’s mind, and we can feel it creeping into our own subconscious and we can truly feel the Russian King’s agony at trying to excise it.
In Hockey Nights, the subjects – characters really – are a step or two less self-critical. Guy Lawson returns to the town of Flin Flon, Manitoba where he once played, to write about the prestigious Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. But instead of nostalgia, or parody, or heavy-handed yarns about the pastoral history of Canada’s favorite sport, we get precise characterization. Lawson skates with the teenage hockey players, and takes us into their lives – as well as those of their girlfriends, their parents, and their coaches. What results is a sincere but plenty critical portrait of big-time hockey’s central role in small-town life.
In all writing, especially literary sports writing, nostalgia is a dangerous conceit. And for more than a few stories in this anthology, it proves to be an undoing. For every brilliant, unique article like those by Bethell and Lawson; for every wide-eyed socioeconomic snapshot like The City Game, Peter Axthelm’s 1970 essay on New York’s playground basketball culture, there is an exasperatingly sentimental reflection on sports writing itself (there is nothing sports writers love more than writing about their craft), or fathers and sons, or what’s right and wrong with baseball.
Only in the hands of a novelist, David James Duncan, does nostalgia become something truly potent. His essay A Mickey Mantle Koan is far and away the most heart-wrenching bit of writing in the book. “On April 6, 1965, my brother, Nicholas John Duncan, died of what his surgeons called ‘complications’ after three unsuccessful open-heart operations. He was seventeen at the time – four years my elder to the very day.” So begins a graceful story of brotherhood, of coping, and of an autographed baseball also dated April 6, 1965.
From those first lines, Duncan’s writing is the kind that makes you forget – or not care – what you’re reading from. Be it a magazine, a website, or an anthology like “Rules of the Game.” Indeed, the best selections in this book aren’t the ones that feel most familiar. They aren’t the profiles of champions at their finest moments, or the quaint cries of sports writers bemoaning the rise of television. They are the stories that can’t help but transcend form and transcend subject; the stories that destroy preconceptions and help us by seeing into the minds and hearts of unexpected figures, be they mamma-turkeys or world class poets, chess champs or teenage goaltenders.