“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 live in. We travel from city to city, sometimes as if we were unaware of a larger world beyond our own. Every city we enter is full of crises and problems that never reach us in a hotel room.
Those crises and problems, of course, are what can make those who face them envious of lads who are paid huge sums to play ball. When one feels that envy, one ignores the life of the shower stall, the hotel room, the bus, and the airport:
The daily worries and pressures of workers concerned about how to pay for food, housing, or medical care never penetrate the glass of our bus window. To do our job, we have to remain healthy and follow orders. In any airline terminal even the sad scene of a soldier’s farewell or the joy of a family reunion often by-pass us making no impression. In the airports that have become our commuter stations we see so many dramatic personal moments that we are calloused. To some, we live romantic lives. To me, every day is a struggle to stay in touch with life’s subtleties.
With each sentence here Bradley increases both his scope and his intensity; the phrasing is ordinary but the activity of the mind is not.
Bradley is so insulated that he will speak easily of a friend in this or that city and never once specify the friend’s name, age, sex, or the nature of their relationship. All newer players, even those on his own team, are just called rookies, even after they have been in the league a few years. Bradley and Dave DeBusschere roomed for years together and only at the end did one of them ask the other if the friendship could last beyond DeBusschere’s retirement, and even at that Bradley is taken aback by the question. Subtleties are lost, no question, and Bradley has to ask why he goes on anyway:
With my dedication to lone practice gone, the team is everything. How the team does affects my feelings about the game and myself; sometimes, I think, too much. I am obsessed with my work of team basketball. In a way, my personality, formed as it was on a steady diet of Calvinist religion, is amenable to the idea of team play…. My problem is that my aspirations demand that I create something I cannot control completely.
For years one saw Bradley slide from the baseline toward the top of the key, saw the screen take form and the pass arrive simultaneously so that Bradley could take his little jump shot and make up for the fact that he is too short, too slow, and, as his teammates tell him, unable to jump high enough for a Sunday Times to fit between his feet and the floor. One sees him do the same thing this year, but the ball isn’t there and Bradley is left alone with his obsession: “At times I feel I am an artist in the wrong medium.”
How much of this can interest a reader who doesn’t care about basketball, or who knows little about it, I can’t possibly say: Yet he makes me, a brooding fan, feel I understand more about every veteran player in the league. There are the old Celtics, Heinsohn, Jones, Russell, Sharman, who are coaches now because their years as players on that team gave them truths their lives cannot live up to otherwise. There are black players, raised from playground ball, who slide from starter to reserve to another team to obscurity because their idea of success involves a different obsession entirely, one too fragile for the endless demands of team ball. To the casual observer it would seem as though Cazzie Russell, who can hit hoops from any angle or distance, is the artist in the right medium. But he was the forward the Knick’s coach Red Holzman traded, not Bradley, and Holzman was of course right. Lonely, obsessed, out of touch with life’s subtleties, Bradley is nonetheless in the right medium on the court.
But even those who think sports are only for kids until they grow up, or that superbly developed athletes are only conspicuous examples of sexuality gone wrong, should not miss, or be denied, Bradley on the subject of growing older. His meditation begins when he remembers Mickey Mantle describing his current life: “Sometimes after breakfast when the boys get off to school, I sit by myself and take a scrapbook and just turn the pages.” Bradley is now old enough to understand that:
When the playing is over, one can sense that one’s youth has been spent playing a game and now both the game and youth are gone, along with the innocence that characterizes all games which are at root pure and promote a prolonged adolescence in those who play.
The prose is flat, yet “pure,” “promote,” and “prolonged adolescence” stand in bleak paradoxical relation to each other, beyond the touch of mere alliteration:
What is left is the other side of the Faustian bargain: To live all one’s days never able to recapture the feeling of those few years of intensified youth…. The athlete rarely recuperates. He approaches the end of his playing days the way old people approach death. He puts his finances in order. He reminisces easily. He offers advice to the young. But the athlete differs from an old person in that he must continue living. Behind all the years of practice and all the hours of glory waits that inexorable terror of living without the game.
This is a truth too grim for a mere fan. The greater the player, the greater the inexorable terror. The longer the career, the worse its ending.
But here we have almost left basketball behind. No one with any kind of success when young can fail to shiver at the sober accuracy of Bradley’s reflections. Bradley may not know it, but people who enjoy their work and work hard burn themselves out, whatever their jobs. Still, in direct proportion to one’s caring about Bradley, the Knicks, and professional basketball will one feel the pain of this book, for they are what it is all about. The Knicks played out the string recently against Cleveland, a team maturing as fast as the Knicks are fading. There was Bradley, with nothing to win or lose, obsessed in what have been rumored to be his last games. Behind the screen, out toward the top of the key. Across the middle, setting a screen on the other side. Cleverly defending, taking one step for Bobby Smith’s two, keeping between Smith and the ball. Having read Life on the Run, I was especially moved by him. Bill Bradley as an author has little art, but he is writing “about” something in this book.
Norman Maclean, twice Bradley’s age, retired a few years ago from the University of Chicago, where he had won a number of awards for distinguished teaching. Before now, he was known to me only as the author of two essays in the neo-Aristotelian collection Critics and Criticism, on Lear and the Augustan lyric, both sound, nicely written, and a bit dull. For years, he says at the beginning, he told his children stories of things that had happened to him, and they finally asked him to write them down. Which he did, though the result is clearly the work of the current, retired Maclean, not of a father trying to interest young children in woods and water.
There are three stories in A River Runs Through It; two are long enough to qualify as short novels. The short one is inconsequential, and the long one about being seventeen and in the Forest Service is flawed by its becoming a variation on the familiar Western tale of a rite of passage. But the 100-page-long title story, about fly fishing, one might call perfect except that it makes no pretense to be shapely or artful. At the end, his father says, “Why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” Maclean, though, does not care about making up a story in which he will understand what happened; he wants to write about those he lived with and who eluded him: “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.” The story is his reaching out.
Mostly to his brother, younger by three years, who did not move away or become a professor of English. He stayed home, became a reporter on a newspaper in Helena, Montana, drank too much, and became a great fly fisherman. At the heart of the story are the two brothers, Norman and Paul, on the trout streams of western Montana, loving and eluding each other, fishing. They are the sons of a Scottish Presbyterian minister: “In our family,” is the first line, “there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
As the boys were raised, so we are instructed,
…if you have never picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess. The four-and-a-half-ounce thing in silk wrappings that trembles with the underskin motions of the flesh becomes a stick without brains, refusing anything simple that is wanted of it. All that a rod has to do is lift the line, the leader, and the fly off the water, give them a good toss over the head, and then shoot them forward so they will land in the water without a splash in the following order: Fly, transparent leader, and then the line—otherwise the fish will see the fly is a fake and be gone.
The first point, then, is that it is simple, though of course the boys did not conclude, as others have, that it was really simple.
But what’s remarkable about just a straight cast—just picking up a rod with line on it and tossing the line across the river? Well, until man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or a golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air; only with a rod it’s worse, because the fly often comes so far back it gets caught behind in a bush or rock…. Then, since it is natural for man to try to attain power without recovering grace, he whips the line back and forth making it whistle each way, and sometimes even snapping off the fly from the leader, but the power that was going to transport the little fly across the river somehow gets diverted into building a bird’s nest of line, leader, and fly that falls out of the air into the water about ten feet in front of the fisherman.
One has to quote such passages, or else the story is reduced to effects, conveying nothing of Maclean’s care.
Being a true Presbyterian, Maclean can know about fishing without making us feel outsiders for not knowing, even though most of us are in fact outsiders. Not having recovered grace, haunted by the mysteries of fishing, he would not dream of trying to imply that he has solved the mysteries. A still better fisherman, like his brother Paul, would dream of this even less. So after the rod and the cast come the rivers, and the fish:
One great thing about fly fishing is that after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts about fly fishing. It is also interesting that thoughts about fishing are often carried on in dialogue where Hope and Fear—or, many times, two Fears—try to outweigh each other.
Thus one fear may be that there is a rock the fish will have to be taken past when hooked, and the line must be pulled so tight if he is taken past the near side he will probably fight free of the hook, especially since the weather has been warm and the fish’s mouth will therefore be soft. But the other fear is that if the fish is taken on the far side of the rock the line will get caught under it.
The world narrows, and all one has are the questions one asks, the hopes and fears, and a river running through it all.
In the arm, shoulder, or brain of a big-fish fisherman is a scale, and the moment the big fish goes into the air the big-fish fisherman, no matter what his blood pressure is, places the scale under the fish and coolly weighs him. He doesn’t have hands and arms enough to do all the other things he should be doing at the same time, but he tries to be fairly exact about the weight of the fish so he won’t be disappointed when he catches him.
Then, after Maclean weighs this fish at a most satisfying seven or eight pounds, and the fish jumps into the bushes hanging over the water, tying a different knot on every branch he passes, comes disaster:
The body and spirit suffer no more sudden visitation than that of losing a big fish, since, after all, there must be some slight transition between life and death. But, with a big fish, one moment the world is nuclear and the next it has disappeared. That’s all. It has gone. The fish has gone and you are extinct, except for four and a half ounces of stick to which is tied some line and a semitransparent thread of catgut to which is tied a little curved piece of Swedish steel to which is tied a part of a feather from a chicken’s neck.
It is an enchanted tale. Paul instructs Maclean a few times, in the sign language of fishers who are also reticent Scots, and once Maclean catches a fish in a hole where his brother cannot because he carries with him special flies, which Paul scorns. There is Maclean’s brother-in-law from the West Coast, who fishes with bait, and whom the brothers discover one afternoon, on an island in the river, horribly sunburned, because he and the prostitute with him have made love and fallen asleep in the August sun. There is Paul’s drinking, for which there is no explanation other than that to him nothing in life measures up to fly fishing. On the day Maclean learns his brother has been beaten to death in a fight, Maclean and his father talk quietly, mostly about the way all the bones in Paul’s casting hand were broken. The story, having a river running through it, generally follows its own path, meandering here and rushing there, but it has to stop at this point.
I have read the story three times now, and each time it seems fuller. Necessarily, I wonder, as I do about Bill Bradley’s book, if the very source of the enchantment, its way of being “about” something, must restrict its audience. I have never fished, but I go with a friend who does, to a river only somewhat less wonderful than the big Montana rivers. I have stared at that river, and at others throughout the West, not with the eye of a fisherman, but enchanted nonetheless. I simply don’t know what I would make of Maclean’s story if I knew no fishers, had never been entranced by trout streams, but I find it hard to believe it would matter as much to me if I knew about none of these things.
There is always something wonderful in reading a book by someone who is absorbed in what he or she does. And that absorption must extend beyond matters of technique and skill. In his Forest Service story Maclean describes a ranger who can pack a whole string of horses and mules so they can walk and climb for days without the packs slipping or the animals becoming hobbled. It must be a rare skill, but then, that is all it is, which is why this story lacks the magic of “A River Runs Through It.” Bill Bradley talks well about the skills involved in playing basketball, but it is not that, or that taken by itself, that obsesses him. There is no need to ignore here, for it is not coincidence, the fact that Bradley and Maclean were both raised as Calvinists, and are Calvinists still. They are dedicated, not to work, as those who don’t understand these matters like to think, but to the achievement of grace. “To him,” Maclean says about his father, “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
Bradley and Maclean are saints of secular communities, and therefore we must care about the arts they practice in order to enter their worlds with more than passing interest. Patient though both are with readers who do not know these arts, there is no way they can pretend to make their absorption into a magic or an enchantment for everyone. If they could do this, they would be different people, less haunted, obsessed. Life on the Run and A River Runs Through It should be interesting to the unconverted, and they might seem silly or even wicked to those who scorn conversion. They will be best for those who know, and who, in knowing, need no reminder that mysteries are not meant to be solved.
May 27, 1976