Federer, Kirkus!, and The Agony of Beginning

I’ve been a shitty blogger—my last entry came right after the U.S. Open final—although I have an excuse (upcom­ing) but must first pat myself on the back for my pre­science. In my pre­vi­ous post, I’d said of the Rafa/Nole match that it was “a contest…”:

painful, at times, to watch, really excru­ci­at­ing to behold, because the phys­i­cal toll on both play­ers was evi­dent as the third set came to its thun­der­ous con­clu­sion, so that this seemed less a ten­nis court then a col­i­seum, a to-the-death affair, and when Rafa took the third there was an expres­sion of dis­be­lief on Nole’s face that hon­estly warmed this week­end hacker’s heart…My inner Mother Teresa wants to upbraid the USTA for destroy­ing the very play­ers who line its pock­ets. My inner sadist would’ve liked to watch either emerge from bed this morn­ing. I’m pic­tur­ing the open­ing scene of North Dal­las Forty with­out the Quaaludes and pot.

And look at Nole since: he made a fee­ble attempt to play Davis Cup, retir­ing with the same back injury suf­fered dur­ing his Bal­boa match with Rafa, one which in turn side­lined him for nearly eight weeks total. He man­aged, next, to win a cou­ple at the Paris Indoors only to with­draw because of a shoul­der injury, a sure sign of com­ing back too soon. Was he rope-a-doping to col­lect that mil­lion plus Mas­ters Series check? Wouldn’t you? But he cer­tainly com­peted against Troicki and didn’t have to. Has he been the same player since the Open? Was George Fore­man after The Rum­ble in the Jun­gle? Does the USTA give a shit? Do the play­ers really protest? No. Why? Greed all around, the same thing that hap­pens to short story writ­ers who make it big.

Fed­erer, mean­while, has been doing the late-career-Agassi thing, mop­ping up the com­ers, the twenty-somethings, mak­ing ten­nis prog­nos­ti­ca­tors look bad. Like Hop­kins or DeNiro, the dude still kicks some ass. He won Basel (again) although admit­tedly his com­pe­ti­tion was thin. Does he play top level tal­ent a non-appearance fee? Are USTA play­ers like, “Meh, Basel. Such an ugly and dirty ceety! I will skeep!” Next he thumps Gas­quet, Berdych, and Tsonga on his way to win the Paris Indoors–and those last two play­ers had been giv­ing him fits in 2011. (Though I will say of the final that Tsonga played very poorly in his 1–6, 6–7 (1) thump­ing and will also add that Fed­erer was sure, this time around, to keep his foot firmly planted on Ali Jr’s neck dur­ing the match, prov­ing an old dog can still learn.) What does the 2012 sea­son look like? I’ll reserve mak­ing that fore­cast till after the season-ending finals but stick by my lead­ing obser­va­tion in my pre­vi­ous post: men’s ten­nis still belongs to Fed­erer, Nadal, Djokovic, and some­times Murray.

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In Ladies and Gen­tle­men news, the story col­lec­tion was just named one of Kirkus Reviews Top Books of 2011 and if you want to hear a fun inter­view, check out my appear­ance on John Seigenthaler’s A Word on Words. I had the honor of appear­ing with nov­el­ist and short story mas­ter Jim Shep­ard at Nashville’s South­ern Fes­ti­val of Books (if you haven’t read his National Book Award-nominated Like You’d Under­stand, Any­way, get it and get a life). Even cooler, he and BookTalk’s Stephen Usery joined me at my house for beers after­ward. Other SFofB high­lights: meet­ing Justin Tor­res (We the Ani­mals) and Chad Har­bach (The Art of Field­ing). Harbach’s plenty nice but a bit stingy. I asked him for fifty grand to buy a pack of smokes. He said he was sorry. He only had ten thou­sand bucks in his wallet.

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As for my fail­ure to blog, I’ve been work­ing on a new novel, Play­world, doing research and draft­ing, the lat­ter mostly recon­nais­sance, which has pro­duced plenty of writ­ing that may never end up on the printed page, like this paragraph:

My aunt always seemed to be smil­ing, which pressed her high cheek­bones into her eyes and made her dim­ples car­toon­ishly dis­crete, so that her face reminded me of a Seuss char­ac­ter. She was short—not over­weight but stocky, not fat but wide around—and when she wore a tube dress, as she was now, the skirt hung like a lamp­shade over her legs and made her head appear smaller, an effect height­ened because her hair was bobbed, so that her body had the shape of cake stand’s glass dome. It was a rare thing to see her as dressed up as she was; I recalled a Christ­mas party or two and a wed­ding. Her default out­fit was always some shade of house­coat, and she stood leg­less, like a Wee­ble, behind her kitchen’s bar, for she was always cook­ing for her three chil­dren, a thing she did with great com­mand and lim­it­less patience, as my cousins rarely arrived at these meals together. To see her clothed thus engen­dered a deep and com­pli­cated feel­ing of sym­pa­thy toward her, because her for­mal­wear appeared dated, were the same, in fact, as the out­fits I iden­ti­fied in the framed pic­tures that hung on her walls taken at long-ago fam­ily gath­er­ings, or that I saw in doc­u­men­taries of the Robert Kennedy or Mar­tin Luther King assassinations—there was some­thing pearl-and-cat-eye-glasses about them. It made me root for her. Where was her Prince Charm­ing? (It wasn’t my fat Uncle Marco, whose ties were always loose at his neck.) Where was her fairy god­mother? And yet, I’d occa­sion­ally catch her rev­el­ing in her under­dog sta­tus, using it as cover, usu­ally when she joined my cousins and me at games, Monop­oly or Life but espe­cially Scrab­ble, the last at which she was demon­i­cally good, a wiz­ard at plink­ing a tile on the square we’d all thought boxed into use­less­ness, a play that acti­vated branches of words and was fol­lowed by some seri­ous math (which she’d already tab­u­lated and sub­se­quently cross­checked), a move she always pre­tended to acci­den­tally discover—“Look-ee here,” she’d say—as if it weren’t an ambush all along. She didn’t fool me and seemed to rec­og­nize this when we were alone, and I loved her ruses and excesses and was annoyed by them in turn; they reminded me of her sto­ries, which went on for­ever and gath­ered toward A Moral but made inspired detours, full of wicked asides, usu­ally about fam­ily mem­bers. (“Your Aunt Madge, you may have noticed, begins the evening dan­ger­ous as a snake and ends it quiv­er­ing like a jel­ly­fish.”) Here, how­ever, our roles were reversed. She was my charge, some­how, and I was sud­denly afraid in her pres­ence: not only of her good-spiritedness, which was bul­let­proof, but also the fact that she was imper­vi­ous to embar­rass­ment, which caused it to ric­o­chet, and so I fixed my gaze on her black dress shoes, wait­ing for the blow.

Does this con­sti­tute a com­ing attrac­tion? Who knows? Not me. And I’m writ­ing the god­damn thing.

More soon.