The Outsider by Jimmy Connors: Is there a competitive advantage to “assholery”?

Former tennis player Jimmy Connors' memoir has the ring of honesty, as though he is trying to be entirely straightforward.

The Outsider: My Autobiography
Jimmy Connors
Bantam Press, 416pp, £18.99

As everyone knows, sport has always been in perpetual decline and fall. Immediately after the first spear was hurled on the savannah someone objected that sport was far better back in the good old days. Golden ageism is as old as the game.

The exact nature of sport’s mythical golden age is less clear. One version of sports history sees gentlemanly virtues being pushed aside by greed and vulgarity. A different view, logically contradictory to the former but nonetheless often held in tandem, harks back to a time when sport was “authentic”, when men were men, heroes were heroes and champions were “characters” – warriors who lived and drank hard, never letting their on-field ambitions get in the way of an honest night-club bust-up followed by a willing blonde or two.

These two criticisms of modern sport can be rolled out indefinitely and interchangeably. Hence the nostalgic sports fan can lament the tragic passing of the noble Corinthian ideal of gentlemanly fair play when no one thought twice about a V-sign to the Royal Box or a wholesome line of coke with a Miss World.

In the case of tennis, nostalgia comes up against an awkward adversary: the present. In terms of physical virtuosity, memorable rivalries and jaw-dropping matches, men’s tennis leads the pack of world sports. Earlier this month, a semi-final at Roland Garros between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal joined the swelling number of recent matches in the elite club of all-time classics.

So kudos to Jimmy Connors for valiantly trying to argue in his autobiography, The Outsider, that the current spectacle of Roger Federer, Djokovic and Nadal – whose courtesy and dignity generally match the superlative quality of their play – has nothing on his own era of incontinent litigiousness, oncourt swearing, childish tantrums, umpire abuse, celebratory crotch-grabbing and mutual hatred between top players.

Connors’s book has the ring of honesty, as though he is trying to be entirely straightforward. He is certainly determined to leave the reader in no doubt that he was a prolific womaniser. At first, Connors contents himself with nods and winks. This yields to lines such as “you can’t beat a bit of mixed doubles”. But you sense the effort of self-control is taking its toll on the author and eventually the dams burst. The relief is palpable when Connors gets to write about his friend, fellow tennis player Ilie Nastase: “Nasty claimed in his autobiography that he’d slept with over 2,500 women. I couldn’t tell you if he was exaggerating, since I was only around for 1,500 of them.”

Victories, as well as conquests, can be traced to his own manhood. “I win the match with nuts the size of grapefruits, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. Take that, I think.” Indeed, you do not need to be a convinced Freudian to discern a link between Connors’s extremely close relationship with his mother (she was his coach, manager and effectively his agent) and his lifelong pride in his machismo.

Those two central facets of his character came together on the night he hooked up with his future wife, the Playboy Playmate Patti Lynn McGuire. The following morning they were disturbed by a second woman knocking persistently at the bedroom door demanding to see “Jimbo”. It was his Mum. “She’s been staying in my second bedroom and I guess I forgot to tell Patti about that.” Connors was 26 at the time.

Between trophies of one kind or another, Connors offers occasional disquisitions about the state of the modern game. Modern technique is “not as effective”. As for the spectacle, “I’ve got to ask: Where is the show?” Connors sees himself as the straight- talking outsider who says things as they are, a wholesome contrast with today’s polished ambassadors. And yet Connors cheerfully admits that his own “spontaneous assholery” was partly about finding his own niche: “Once my notoriety spread, the agents came calling.”

Connors’s book is a magnificent snapshot of his era: Gordon Gekko, “nice guys finish last”, “all publicity is good publicity”, manners are masks for snobbery, honour is hypocrisy, everyone is trying to screw everyone, so just man up and be honest about it.

And yet the interesting point about men’s tennis is that history proved us all wrong. What once seemed an inevitable cultural trajectory was halted and then reversed. Bad boy brashness stopped being bracing and became deeply boring. We got tired of the act.

More importantly, the evidence from the court proved that there is no competitive advantage to “assholery”. It was just a passing fad, a marketing tool. Sport has moved on. For sheer willpower, Nadal is at least the match of Connors. But instead of acting up to the part of pugilist, he simply returns quietly to the baseline and digs into his reserves of epic competitiveness.

Connors has written an honest book that tries to argue that the sport he loves is not what it once was. He certainly develops a powerful argument – just not the one he sets out to make.

Jimmy Connors in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear