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Review: Playing Days

Despair of men going through hoops

    Markovits: affecting game plan
    Markovits: affecting game plan

    By Benjamin Markovits
    Faber and Faber, £12.99

    The opening sentence of Benjamin Markovits's new novel reads: "My first recognisably sexual experience took place in the weight room of my junior high school, after class, during basketball practice."

    We are a world away from his previous two novels, both about Byron, full of knowing literary allusions and long sentences, four lines long, contributing to thick and dense paragraphs. There is something exciting here. It reads like a young writer finding his voice, junking the old baggage and striking out for something new and very different.

    Playing Days is about a young American basketball player - called Benjamin Markovits - torn between sports and becoming a writer. He is working on a piece of fiction about a man named Syme. If you think this sounds like Markovits's first novel, The Syme Papers, you would be right. If you think this is some horrendous piece of clever-clever postmodernism you could not be more wrong.

    In the new novel, the author is drawing on his own experience as a young student playing pro basketball for a small second-division team in Bavaria, near Munich.

    It is about players who will sink without trace and know it

    It is a kind of rite of passage, but he turns it into so much more: a novel about failure, masculinity, sons and fathers, Jews and Germans.

    It is a clever idea for a novel, bringing together a small group of young men, playing for a minor sports team. It helps if you know (or care) about basketball; quite a lot of the language is technical. But in the end the drama carries you along. Who among the players will make it? Who won't? What about the young narrator? Will he become a basketball star or will he turn back to writing?

    There is nothing glamorous about this sporting world. We are a long way from Michael Jordan. The book is suffused with small-time failure. It is about players who will sink without trace and know it.

    They probably won't even make it as husbands or fathers - or simply as men. Some are too young and brash, others too closed-in on themselves, already sinking into lives of loneliness.

    Markovits's group of characters - Henkel, the mediocre coach; Karl, the only one with star potential; and, most compelling of all, the mysterious Hadnot: older, American, a marriage already on the rocks - make for compelling reading.

    Most of the players are outsiders of one kind or another. There are two Americans, a Croat, two blacks and two Jews. Markovits is half-and-half. He is an American, born and raised in Texas but his mother is German and he speaks German fluently.

    He is Jewish enough to be drawn to the synagogue in Munich and to worry about whether he should marry the German non-Jewish girl with whom he falls in love.

    At one point, it looks as if this will be at the heart of the novel, but the issue remains largely unexplored. The Jewishness is a red herring. The story's overwhelming effect is of a powerfully bitter-sweet range of choices and failure, of what becomes of lonely young men when their dreams go sour.

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