I once broke my collarbone in a golf tournament.
Technically, I suppose, the injury was more of a gin-drinking accident than a golf accident, but it still says a lot about my relationship to the game that it's my fondest golf memory. I bring this up because I played in another golf tournament yesterday — a shortened Ryder Cup style match with two teams. (My team got killed. In my defense, I'm not really much of a golfer. To me, golf is like karaoke: the only thing more pathetic than being bad at it is being good at it.)
But as I was getting my clubs out yesterday, I started wondering if there was a great American golf novel out there. There's a fairly rich tradition of baseball literature (and movies) and some great writing on basketball, but for some reason golf hasn't lent itself to that kind of treatment. There are some classic short stories that feature golf, John Cheever's "The Brigadier" and "The Golf Widow," for instance, but it's not really about golf. It's about bomb shelters and infidelity. Walker Percy's novel The Second Coming begins with a nice golf scene, but again, the novel is not really about golf. In fact, when golf appears in fiction it's usually just shorthand to signal that a character has lost touch with his or her youth and has settled into a life of moneyed emptiness.
There are apparently a number of British mysteries set around golf and in the United States. Roberta Isleib writes delightful mysteries about golf with cool titles (Final Fore, Fairway to Heaven) but sheâ€™s not really trying to use the game to tell us something about the human condition.
Of the "great writers," John Updike probably writes about golf more than anyone. He understands "the bliss and aggravation of the game," which sounds a little like the human condition to me. And in this cool interview with the Wall Street Journal, he talks all about the game and claims that the cornerstone of any golf library are books by P.G. Wodehouse.
In Updike's later Rabbit novels, golf plays a big part in Harry Angstromâ€™s life, but it always seems like he settled into the game, that it was a kind of compromise he made with age. I prefer to think of Rabbit the basketball player, soaring in that great scene with him playing the kids in the beginning of Rabbit, Run.
When asked what connection writing has to golf, hereâ€™s what Updike said: "It's contemplative. You kind of think your way out of corners. Often you find yourself both in plotting and in golf in an awkward situation of your own making and you try to get out of it."
Or you get drunk, fall down, and break your collarbone.
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Jess Walter is the author of eight books, including Beautiful Ruins and We Live in Water. He's been a finalist for the National Book Award and PEN/USA Literary prize and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Jess Walter is the author of Beautiful Ruins (P.S.)