Life on the Run
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
“Old man,” says a character in Wright Morris’s The Huge Season, “a book can have Chicago in it, and not be about Chicago. It can have a tennis player in it without being about a tennis player.” He then points to a book of Hemingway’s:
“There’s a prizefighter in it, old man, but it’s not about a prizefighter.”
“Is it about the sun rising?” I said. I knew that was part of the title.
“Goddam if I know what it’s about….”
The province of art is anyplace. Morris did not want sloppy readers saying The Huge Season was “about” a tennis player, or that his other books were “about” the West. Mark Harris used this passage as the epigraph to Bang the Drum Slowly because he didn’t want his readers to make his novel be “about” baseball. Hemingway would have approved.
Still, the claim that novels are not “about” anything has always seemed to me ingenuous, or, worse, disingenuous. No reader is interested in everything, and only the very greatest art can withstand the ravages of time, leap the barriers of language and distance, defy the inevitable tendency of readers to be more interested in some things than others. Bill Bradley’s Life on the Run is “about” playing professional basketball; Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is “about” fly fishing and working in the Forest Service in Montana. No question but that people who care about these subjects will care more about these admirable books than those who do not. Bradley is thoughtful and engaging about many aspects of basketball that others have written about badly or not at all. Maclean’s title story, about fly fishing, seems to me a fine tale. But there’s no telling how far or how well these excellences can travel.
Life on the Run is not amusing, or rich in lore and anecdote. Though many pages concern Bradley’s New York Knick teammates, Bradley says little about them an attentive bystander could not have anticipated; the same is true for his account of his own career as a boy from Crystal City, Missouri, who trained himself to be a basketball prodigy, starred at Princeton, and then read history at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Even stranger, perhaps, his book is weak in narrative and suspense. Though it uses a few weeks late in the 1973-1974 season as its frame, it rarely mentions whether the Knicks are gaining or falling back on the Celtics. Bradley chooses these weeks, presumably, because it was the end for the old Knicks—Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere were about to retire—but we don’t find out how the season ended. Nor does he say much about the techniques and tactics of this superbly disciplined team.
Which leaves Bradley his subject, the life of an aging professional basketball player, especially life on the road, and it is subject enough.
As I stand in the cramped shower stall I think about the insulated world we professional basketball players…
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