Boy's own story

A Gentleman's Game

Tom Coyne <em>Atlantic, 264pp, £15</em>

ISBN 1903809053

Golf and literature have not always swung smoothly in the same sentence. P G Wodehouse was not ashamed to set some of his funniest farces on the links ("He folded her in a gentle embrace, using the interlocking grip") and John Updike inveigled plenty of clubhouse scenes into his Rabbit sequence. A couple of other American authors - Richard Ford and Josephine Humphreys - have allowed themselves a stroll up the fairways. But for the most part, golf has been deployed as an easy and dismal image of bourgeois complacency; if a guy starts hoisting his clubs into the back of the car, you just know he's some kind of a cad.

Tom Coyne's new novel shows us what we've been missing. It is the story of a boy wonder, Timmy, who nurses (or risks) his magical talent by working as a caddy at a smart country club. His dad is a member, but not one of the confident corporate types that dominate the committee and the grill room. So Timmy is anxious to ingratiate himself with his below-stairs workmates, who have seen enough members' kids in their time. He is only a boy, and has an edgy domestic life to negotiate as well as the tight-mouthed envy of his peers. His father has dejection inscribed into his every phrase, while his mother is a stoical and uncomplaining golf widow who has become "smilingly indifferent to most things".

From the moment he first grips a club, Timmy is "pure". "There was puberty in my blood," he says, "but there was also golf." People gasp at his timing and elegance. But life soon starts to drip impurities his way. Brilliance isn't easy to live with.

Coyne doesn't stint on the details. His characters say things such as: "Your power is in the coil, but your hips slide back instead of rotating." But this doesn't mean that it's a book for fans only. Coyne's narration is dry, concise and expressive. "My brother didn't have friends," he says. "He had a stereo." And caddies make good narrators, because they get such a good view of the failings of their elders, "men with such intense boredom in their eyes that they could have been doing anything or nothing at all - they just happened to be playing golf". Coyne makes the most of it. There's nicely judged comedy in the member-guest and much pathos in the sweat-soaked burdens carried by the caddies.

The novel falters only towards the end. The author looks down, as if he can't quite believe how well it's going, and starts trying to force the pace. Not content with the elements of drama he has already so successfully created - Will Timmy make it? How will his family cope? - he tacks on a formulaic plot about child abuse involving the president of the club and a young caddie. It's not half as interesting as the milder tensions enveloping our hero, and the author seems to know it. He tightens his grip, the smoothness goes, and for the first time he starts chunking the ball.

It is more than a momentary loss of confidence in golf; it's as if he stops believing in himself. And it's a shame, because the novel is at its best when it is waggling a club. Perhaps this is why sport is so rarely a successful subject for fiction: it is so vivid and clear that it rebels if it is pushed into the background.

Robert Winder writes monthly for the books pages

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot