Monday, August 18, 2008

The Complex and Quiet Life of a Golf Prodigy

Golf is an odd game. It looks deceptively simple, yet so much can go wrong athletically from addressing the small white ball, to backswing, to forward motion, to strike and launch. Professionals are frustrated by mistakes as much as amateurs. This is what makes the sport of golf interesting. Golf is also a game of etiquette, most often a game of privilege, and sometimes a place with unspoken truths and whispered secrets. All of these facets of golf are explored in A Gentleman’s Game, written by Tom Coyne.

Timmy Price is the son of Irish-American parents living in the Delaware side of the Philadelphia suburbs who are trying to find their place within the lower segment of New Water’s wealthy set. Mr. Price is one of 350 members of the Fox Chase Country Club. His son was blessed with a natural athletic gift. Timmy can hit a golf ball. The novel opens with the perfect way of describing this gift, “By the time I was thirteen, I was pure.”

Coyne explores through Timmy’s eyes the quiet physical challenge of mastering golf and it’s many intricacies. The book also examines the way that such a gift separates a boy from his peers, the pressure it puts on a young kid trying to play a game, and the static that it creates between a father who has dedicated much of his adult life trying to capture just a slight glimpse of what comes so easily to his son. All of this would be enough for any novel, but author Tom Coyne pours more rich elements into this book. It’s these added layers to this story that make it rise above being just a good golf book.

Country clubs are not just populated with the comfortably rich. There are families struggling to make things work, wealthy men and women who take improper advantage of their place in that world of privilege, and a barely visible working class carrying the golf bags and drinks in crystal glasses. From the caddy hole where he works to the driving range where he rubs elbows with the rich, Timmy sees all of these people interact for the first time. The sometimes beautiful and more often ugly people he watches reveal to him some painful truths. This is a powerful novel because we watch, through prose as pure as a prodigy’s golf swing, how learning to live with these truths, making his own choices, and negotiating what is the right thing to do makes Timmy one of the better characters to discover in coming-of-age fiction.

Certainly, this book is full of golf. You don’t have to love or know the game to enjoy the book, but there are things that will make the reading experience richer if you do know the game. When you’re done with the book, there’s a movie version you might find in a video store or on Netflix. The book is much better than the movie (as is usually the case), but the film follows the plot and setting admirably. If you’re interested in how a novel needs to be compressed in order to be made into a movie, then watching the DVD is worthwhile. Otherwise, skip the movie and read Tom Coyne’s next book or head to the driving range and see how far you can launch a range ball with a three iron.

I should disclose that there are some pages in this book with a lot of colorful language (and by that I mean bad, R-rated words). There are adult situations (again, a broad way of saying that these scenes would get an R-rating). Still, despite the stuff that is harsh, I believe that this is an appropriate book for some teens. There’s nothing in here that’s grittier than Sherman Alexie’s superb The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (read an excellent review of this book here), and the worst word you’ll read in A Gentleman’s Game you’ll also find in one of the greatest books in the history of the world (Huckleberry Finn). When I was a teen, I wish I had read more books with adult situations. What better way to understand the demanding world you’re currently and soon to confront than to examine complex situations through good literature? Being fed by only that which is thin or sugary sweet is certainly no way to grow strong. Am I right? Where would you draw the line at what is appropriate? What do you, the young adult reader, want to read?

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