Playing Days

Court proceedings

In his last two novels, Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment, Benjamin Markovits considered the poet Byron from the elliptical perspectives of his doctor and his wife. Here, he turns to a somewhat less exalted figure: a basketball player and wannabe scribe by the name of Ben Markovits. This doppelgänger of a narrator shares more than a name with his creator. Freshly hatched from university, the fictional Ben has drifted from America to Landshut, a small town in Germany, where he has managed to secure a place on a second-division team as a way of nourishing, both creatively and financially, his artistic aspirations. This is an episode that also appears on the real Markovits's CV. Both are lanky and half-German on their mother's side, and the fictional version is working on a book about a scientist called Syme, who happens to have been the subject of the real Markovits's first novel.

This postmodern muddying of the waters is explained (or at least acknowledged) by an epigraph from Byron: "But I hate things all fiction . . . There should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric - and pure invention is but the talent of a liar." All writers draw on elements of fact, but to do so with such self-consciousness is to risk alienating the reader. The moments in which the two Mar­kovitses' stories dovetail create an uneasiness about the nature of what is being read that never fully disperses or is resolved. Yet the atmosphere of uncertainty seems oddly appropriate for a book that stands as a testimony to a young man's aspiration and insecurity and his search for a viable identity.

Ben is not a particularly talented basketball player. As a scout explains to him, in the rhythmic, mysterious jargon that makes sports writing so alluring, "Your lateral footwork is terrible, and you end up reaching on defence and catching cheap whistles." Ben was on the bench all the way through high school, and it seems astonishing that he has pitched up a pro, with a club apartment and teenage boys begging for his autograph. What he lacks, unlike John Irving's youthful wrestlers and athletes, is drive, and Playing Days is not so much an adrenalin-charged account of sporting glory as an intricate anatomisation of what it means to be not quite good enough.

Only one of Ben's team-mates is gifted, and it is no coincidence that seven-foot Karl is the least attractive player on court. The novel's pivot point is, rather, Bo Hadnot, a bucktoothed, ageing Texan with too much fat on his belly and a genius for basketball that is composed almost entirely of a stubborn refusal to fail. His playing is nothing short of beautiful, inspiring some of the finest writing in a book marked by the formal perfection of its prose. "He hit from the baseline, from the elbow, from the top of the key. He knocked down little ten-foot floaters that may be the toughest shot in basketball, letting the high slow arc of the ball take back the force of the drive." It is only gradually that the desperation of Hadnot's
position becomes clear, because he is facing the prospect that all sporting heroes must at some point confront: that their playing days are numbered and their knees are giving way.

Ben is the witness to Hadnot's decline, but he also plays a role in it. In the long, languid afternoons between training sessions, he has begun a relationship with Anke, the older man's ex-wife and the mother of his child. Anke is young and beautiful, but the relationship between the two is recorded with a chilly exactitude that never quite flares into the passions regularly played out on court. While every last dunk and dribble of a match is logged, giving these scenes a sweaty and sometimes desperate intensity, the couple's sexual relationship is concealed beneath a veil that makes the reasons for its continuation hard to fathom.

“Sport," Ben muses at one point, "is the art of repeating meaningless and tiny acts." It is a characteristically self-deprecating line that gets to the heart of his own inability to make it as a pro. But the aphorism isn't borne out here. Markovits is an exceptionally adept chronicler of human interaction, and his strongest achievement in this elegant, thoughtful novel is to show that, of the many complicated games people play, those acted out on court might prove the most meaningful of all.

Playing Days
Benjamin Markowits
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela