Middle of the Sentence
ROOTS: Basketball, Race, and Love
John Wideman has been writing about his own and others mortality for a long time, but nowhere more movingly than in this new book, a work that is ostensibly about basketball. Hoop Roots is Widemans own pre-elegy.
In this beautifully disarranged portfolio of narratives about his various recent returns to the playground as an old head and a usta-be, he writes about being old in advance of really being old. On the court he has seen himself die already; in the new book he moves in a simultaneous or synchronic time, non-narratively back in time, to moments when he was already old and the young leggy players, the newest, fastest ones, had already superceded him. These youngbloods didnt know you from before, and they grumbl[ed] when you couldnt keep up with the way they played the game. Wideman is dying out of his basketball life before he dies out of life entirelong before, we can hope. It gives him a social preview of the new era. Age is the hoop caste system, but hoop age is radically relative, pushing the end hard toward one end of the scale, old in hoop coming well before old arrives in lifes other arenas. Thus hoop is a social test of our capacity for reinvention and improvisation. The politics of Hoop Roots is a body politics, an intramural struggle waged on courts of play, in the no-mans land of innovation, animated by the young legs and the the rush of their skills and made urgent by the respect the young selectively feel for their heady elders. It is a contest that is, alas, no contest, for todays today and leg ball ([s]ignifying you dont need a brain to play it), which is an in-your-face form of forgetting, seems to win over remembering. The emotional message of this book is that remembering has always been the key to learning communally from past tragic mistakes.
In this mortal contest Wideman takes a position. By no means does he condemn the young ones (this is not a simple book). He aches for a passionate synthesis. In the struggle between, on one hand, no-brain leg ball and, on the other, the game he must now play (taping up ankles, bracing knees, binding hamstrings, Ace bandages, spandex, Ben Gay, Advil, eye-glasses secured by Croakies), language itself is on the side of the usta-be. Wise about this, Wideman accepts a broken writing. He creates a language more lovely than all the most lyric complete sentences he has written about basketball in earlier books. Returning now to the courts of his Homewood childhood, or lured onto a Greenwich Village playground during his courtship (as it were) of a new lover, Wideman finds himself back in the middle of a sentence that hasnt ended.
In the time scheme of Hoop Roots the fragment is the truly human form. Once upon a time words had done the job. They had wholly worked to describe. But no longer, as the old head knows. Now language fills physical absences, stands in for the lack; from now on Wideman will write, in a sense, because he cannot play hoop. So the writing must be disrupted, unfinished, digressive, resisting endings, precisely like the disjunctive parts of this book. And since the book, as Wideman tells us, is ultimately about pleasure, we understand how pleasure comes more from digression than straight-ahead direction, more from words that dont precisely mean than from sentences that disclose the world clearly. Hoop Roots gives us a compelling theory of words, how they must work after the body and the community are analogously ravaged. Whereas once we felt words located the things they denote, connected solidly to the rock (hoops slippery nickname for the ball), and whereas good words were satisfactions in themselves, now the present tense must somehow point to a time that is not just now. The present must be in the middle of a sentence that hasnt ended. This is an experimental notion of time, what we might call a middle time. In Widemans new writing it is often closer in spirit and syntax to Gertrude Stein than to many another of his narrative and thematic predecessors. The healing response to the painfully gone past is not the immaturity of a simple present tense, where things stand plainly for themselves, where language tells you what things are. Rather, it is an improvised no-one-knows-where-its-going immediacy, something made in the playing and while the writing is being written.
All this makes for superb improvisation. We see the rush of Widemans skills in a book that has been written to lament the diminution of skills. When Hoop Roots is written in the present tense it is as complex and mature a version of writerly presence as I have read. [H]oop is doing it, he writes. Participating in the action. Being there. And: We are doing this together. [B]ut the action is always gone. Stories place you in the presence of something perhaps experienced before, but since not named, in a sense unrecognized, though mysteriously tangible like the painful throbbing an amputated limb leaves behind in the space it once occupied. These phrasings are about basketball, but they are also about the writing we are reading. In general they make a practice of writing that staves off dying, that restores presence in the face of tragic absence. Such an approach to language is also of course about improvisational African-American culture, the unreproducibility of modern jazz, a kind of expressiveness in which, as Wideman puts it, [t]he present tense presides. You play once and it is just that once an articulate fragment, for then it can never quite be repeated or attached to the whole. It is, as William Carlos Williams M06 Hon52 put it in a relevant poem about modern culture, a pure product of America go[ne] crazy. A good kind of crazy, although it inspires some fear from those who like stability. As basketball is a folk cultures determination to generate its own terms, so is this writing once Wideman discovers the pure pleasure in it. Just when and where the world is on your case to shape up, line up, shut up, he wants pleasure, the freeing, outlaw pleasure of play in a society, to help resist and ultimately reshape that world. Thus the unshapely book and the writing, sentence by sentence, that refuses to shape up into a body. Implicit is a formal or sculptural principle. If the surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti was explicitly an aesthetic model in Two Cities, Widemans brilliant novel of 1998there we read a series of letters written to Giacometti by one of the main charactersin Hoop Roots Wideman is even more committed to the idea of writing that reliably supplies breaks rather than creates wholes. Fragments of performance suggestive of a forever unfinished whole, the perfect whole tantalizingly close to now and also forever receding.
Wideman has discovered the connection between the kind of language into which he has matured and the game that in his tragedy-filled life gave rise to his antipathy for total explanations of social ills and for commodifications of black culture. Having made this connection, he can write of basketball in a way that is one model for a self-governing society, the radical republic of hoop. The games pure because its a product of the players will and imagination, a grammar invented there and then, a collaborative one-time-only art. In the modal republic of hoop the fast legs and old heads improvisationally create, adapt, and enforce the rules. [P]layground hoop like all cultural practices at the margins engages in a constant struggle to reinvent itself. Hoop requires, he says, no outside enforcementno referee, coach, clock, scoreboard, rule book. Players call fouls, keep score, mediate disputes, police out-of-bounds, decide case by case. It is a model for true home rule, dependent upon the contest between no-brain and the brainy thoughtfulness that deeply knows the relation between language, culture, memory, and the mortality that (soon) awaits even todays young legs. For Wideman this bespeaks the richness rather than the bleakness of postindustrial urban fragmentation if it can be depicted in a style more like Giacomettis non-realist distortions and discontinuities and less like the do-good realism of social documentary. Hoop offers a non-narrative and undepictable free space in the middle of all this. If urban blight indeed a movable famine, Wideman writes in the books finest fragment, playground ball the citys movable feast.
The writing is a significant advance upon basketball as thematic background in books like Philadelphia Fire (1990) and Brothers and Keepers (1984). Hoop there moved plots forward; served as stagings of urban dissent; made the politically necessary although obvious point that African American youth would narrate its own triumphs as a warriors alternative to the tradition of American stories; and of course wooed readers and critics with stunning depictive prose.
It is in the remarkable Two Cities that the warrior spirit of hoop began to compromise the future. There Wideman began to understand the anti-aesthetic of discontinuity as the alternative way of explaining how hoop could encourage rather than destroy love and community. In that novel the view that All you needs that warrior spirit to keep the old arms and legs moving is called into question when the young woman who will save Robert Joness soul comes to watch him play playground hoop with much younger and more dangerous men and leaves him when the dumb knucklehead macho shit nearly leads to his shooting. She who has lost sons to gang violence cant love another dead man and walks away from their love. The conventional gorgeousness of Widemans prose descriptions of basketball being played, such as this
is itself called into doubt as a sufficient kind of writing. The woman who teaches Robert how to love a blighted community, and the old, broken World War II veteran and amateur modernist photographer (Mr. Mallory, Giacomettis correspondent), together unwrite hoop as the award-winning John Edgar Wideman had always written it before. They teach him to depict the urban scene in a way that invite[s] a viewer to stroll around it, to see [things] from various angles, see the image I offer as many images, one among countless ways of seeing, so the more they look, the more there is to see. The more we look at Two Cities and Hoop Roots, the more there is to see. It is this pleasurable density of appearances, a hoop cubism with radical social import, refusing any single, special, secret view in favor of many views simultaneously, that takes Wideman as a writer directly from the triumph of love he published in 1998 to the true social and aesthetic wisdom of Hoop Roots in 2001.
One event that came between Two Cities and Hoop Roots was Widemans visit to the Kelly Writers House in April 2000, a celebratory return to the scene of his first anxious foray into white academe and his glories on the court as an All-Ivy star of Penns basketball team. In several days of intense discussion with students, faculty, staff, West Philadelphia neighbors, old friends and colleagues, audiences that included coaches and players of Penns current team, we caught glimpses of what hoop was coming to mean for this writer entering late-middle-age experimentally. During a discussion I helped lead (and which was excerpted here in the July/August 2000 issue), I asked Wideman to elaborate on a story he had told my students the previous day. As a Penn freshman, one of a few black students on campus, homesick for Homewood, he had very nearly left the University after just six weeks on campus. What had made him stay? Hoop had. He explained:
This intrepid self-constructionthe idea that we can help create our own world in writing as in hoopleads to the brilliant social thesis of Hoop Roots. Its this: The games as portable as a belief. The butterfly pinned to the sky is pretty, but it was dead and undynamic the moment it hit the page. Wise love could not come from it. Nor could self-creation. Hoop teaches Wideman to write his way backalthough it is always movingto the troubled, unsolid ground.
Dr. Alan Filreis is the Class of 1942 Professor of English and faculty director of the Kelly Writers House.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.
ON THE PAST: An Archaeologists Sketchbook
In this book Naomi F. Miller takes the archaeological autobiography to a new dimension by pairing her drawings and paintingsinspired by over 30 years of fieldworkwith conversational prose narrative. The sketchbook places the reader in the center of fieldwork action at several major archaeological sites in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Turkmenistan [The Stamp Seal Mystery, November/December]. We learn about many aspects of life on the dig: science and scholarship; digging and analyzing; local landscapes and local politics; shopping and cooking; eating and sleeping. Miller is a senior research scientist at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology in the University Museum.
LET THE KIDS PLAY: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Childs
Fun and Success in Youth Sports
Todays parents invest a great deal of time, money, and miles on the odometer to give their children access to sports experiences. It may surprise them to learn that many young athletes are being hindered, if not hurt, by participating in organized youth sports. Just Let the Kids Play offers a rare look inside the organized system of sports, confronting the sources of the trouble exploding on the sidelines everywherefrom fights among the adults to large numbers of children who quit sports at a young age. Focusing on the five most popular youth sports, the authors outline ways to set up teams that foster fair play, skill development, and social interaction, while also offering advice on how adults can keep themselves and others in check. Bob Bigelow, a former Quaker basketball player, played four years in the NBA and is now a part-time NBA scout and nationwide speaker. [See Bob Bigelows Full Court Press. ]
MEANING: Toward a Critical History
How, why, and where is music heard? How can we integrate the study of music with social and cultural issues? Focusing on the Classical repertoire from Beethoven to Shostakovich and also discussing jazz, popular music, and film and television music, Musical Meaning explores these questions. Fusing a broad knowledge of recent cultural and critical theory with music literature, this book uncovers the historical importance of asking about meaning in the lived experience of musical works, styles, and performances. Lawrence Kramer, professor of English and music at Fordham University and co-editor of 19th-Century Music, has previously written six books, including After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture.
By day Michael Shields is CFO of Kenmark Optical, Inc. in Louisville. By night he can be found rockin the corporate world with his music as rhythm and acoustic guitarist for his band, The Accountants. Their music is pure, serious rock and roll with lyrics that address the experiences of anyone who has spent at least five minutes in corporate America. For more info, see (www.cparock.com).
WORKS PRAISE HER: A History of Jewish Women
Ever since Peter Stuyvesant grudgingly admitted a band of 23 Jews to colonial New Amsterdam, Jewish women have played a major role in building the distinctive culture of the United States. Exploring the lives of several ordinary but remarkable Jewish women since 1654, this book chronicles 15 generations of change and tradition, courage and creativity. Drawing on long-neglected public records, private diaries, memoirs, and letters, the authors depict complex portraits of well-known figures like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Emma Lazarus, Ms. Wyatt Earp, Bess Myerson, and Betty Friedan, as well as lesser-known leaders of movements for civil rights and social justice. Beryl Lieff Benderly, a journalist and author of seven books, lives in Washington D.C.
FROM INVISIBILITY: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America
Half a century ago gay men and lesbians were all but invisible in the media and, in turn, popular culture. While the lesbian and gay liberation movement has given gay people a more dominant role on the medias stage, the question remains: Does the emerging visibility of gay men and women do justice to the complexity and variety of their experiences? While positive representations of gays and lesbians are a cautious step in the right direction, in this book Dr. Larry Gross argues that the entertainment and news media betray a lingering inability to embrace the complex reality of gay identity. Gross is the Sol Worth Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and author of several books, including Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing.
CIRCUITRY AND SIGNALING IN PSYCHIATRY:
The 1990s were appropriately termed the decade of the brain for their unprecedented advances in psychiatric neuroscience. This book links these recent findings in neuroscience with their implications for the treatment of specific psychiatric disorders: schizophrenia, addiction, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and Dementia/Alzheimers disease. Bringing together the contributions of 15 experts in the field, it provides the mental-Velcro on which to add new information in clinical neuroscience as it becomes available at an ever-accelerating pace. Dr. Gary Kaplan is associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and human behavior and molecular pharmacology, physiology, and biotechnology at Brown University School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence, Rhode Island.
The United States first human-rights campaign, to end the slave trade, ran from 1787 to 1792, and continued on through later generations until the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. In this new history of activism the author shows how these campaigns and others provided a template for todays struggles to end the death penalty, guarantee workers and womens rights, stop genocide, and rescue forgotten political prisoners. Dr. Linda Rabben is the author of Unnatural Selection: The Yanomami, the Kayapo and the Onslaught of Civilisation, and co-editor of Rome Has Spoken: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements and How They Have Changed through the Centuries.
Chilling media reports about anthrax and bioterrorism have helped make antibiotics all the rage among health-conscious Americans. Yet, this book warns that as families stock up on antibacterial soaps, toys, and cleansers, the effort to defeat threatening microbes may lead instead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Dr. Stuart Levy, professor of medicine and of molecular biology and microbiology, is the director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University School of Medicine [Resistance Fighter, September/ October 2000].
Detailing the everyday valor and squalor of World War II, this journal began as a collection of notes scribbled on pages of Lord Baltimore Service tablets, carried with the author from the time of his 1942 departure to Europe with the U.S. Army Air Corps to the end of the war in 1945. In it, Ray Petit describes being strafed as he returned from breakfast near the Cassino (Italy) beachhead, wriggling into the ball on the very top of Saint Peters Cathedral in Rome, and climbing to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, trying to spot a field kitchen for food that night. But the tedium and discomforts of war were, as he writes in his foreword, a small price for American freedom. Now in business with Terrific Tubs, a flower-container service he copyrighted, the author and his wife, Doris, live in New Jersey.
Previous issue's reviews | Reviews in Brief | May/June Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 2002 The
Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/28/02