Golf Is Not A Sport: The Yips and the Strange Madness of Truth
In the interest of the expansion and broadening of horizons here on the Book Catapult (ahem), I offer up this, the first ever guest post, written by long-time Catapulteer, fellow bookseller, and generally smart-assed book snob, Scott Ehrig-Burgess. Enjoy. -Seth
“First thing you must learn is this game ain’t about hitting a little ball in some yonder hole. It’s about inner demons, self-doubt, human frailty and overcoming that shit. What kind of doctor did you say you were?” –Roy McAvoy, Tin Cup
As anyone who has spent any reasonable amount of time around me knows, I am of the freely offered opinion that golf is not a sport. This quasi-intellectual pose of mine has the advantage of appearing dogmatic, inflexible, pig-headed, anti-intellectual in an intellectually pretentious way, and, at the end of the day, is about as pointless as debating whether or not Gregor Samsa was actually a cockroach or just imagined himself one. The Golf Is Not A Sport argument has the advantage of quickly manufacturing entrenched positions on either side, which often become fungible as the discussion continues aimlessly down predictable tangents – what about NASCAR? Is driving in a circle at 200mph an athletic endeavor? What to do with billiards or Ping-Pong? It’s just random enough for both good friends and strangers to discuss at an informal gathering and can be rehashed again and again. It’s a great way to talk about sports when you’re surrounded by people who don’t care much about sports without exposing yourself as a sports nerd, as would mentioning, say, the Arizona Wildcats basketball recruiting class of 2012 (Top three, people, top three!). The Golf Is Not A Sport argument goes something like this: Any ‘sport’ that other professional athletes play on their day off is not a sport. Period. End of debate. See how that works? Now let me stop you before you go down the rabbit hole: The ‘Tiger Woods is an athlete therefore all other golfers must be athletes’ argument is even weaker now that we know Tiger spent most of his rounds sexting, beating his opponents with one hand and himself with the other, metaphorically speaking, as it were.
In any case, it was a great shock to this conceit of mine to learn that one of my favorite writers, Nicola Barker, has at last written the first great, gulp, Golf Novel, of the Twenty-First Century. This novel, The Yips, has recently been long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and will hopefully be short-listed when the finalists are released tomorrow. (*Editor’s note: Nope, didn’t make the cut. But keep reading!) Barker’s publication history in the States has been erratic – her books often dismissed as ‘Too English’, which, as Ms. Barker has said, is better than being thought of as ‘Too Pungent’ or ‘Too Stupid’ – and The Yips has yet to be picked up by an American publisher, so it was with a good deal of anxiety that I purchased the novel online for around $50, including shipping, then waited a fortnight (English term) for The Yips to finally arrive. Having just finished the novel, I can, at last, tell you with a great deal of relief, that The Yips is not only a great novel and a cracking good read (another Briticism), but it features very little actual golfing. One could say none, in fact. There is an errant practice drive, a discussion of the merits of a sport – err, game – called Turbo Golf (which is basically nine holes instead of eighteen), and various references throughout to Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, et al., but not a single scene of actual drama on the Golf Course. No climactic 18th green birdie putt, no getting up and down from a sand trap due to divine intervention, no Tin-Cup moment – “This is for Venturi who thinks I should lay up!” – though the professional golfer of the novel, Stuart Ransom, does share some of Roy McAvoy’s foibles, while lacking Roy’s self-confidence. This golf void, if you will, only further enforces my prejudice that golf is not a sport (as if the mere fact that the mediocre Tin Cup has entered the lexicon of golf wasn’t damning enough).
So, if The Yips isn’t about golf, what exactly is it about? The novel is vintage Nicola Barker. As those of you who have read Nicola Barker before have figured out, a Nicola Barker novel is about the journey itself, rather than the road map, but just to humor us, I’ll give the plot a try. Basically, The Yips is about a crude, self-absorbed ex-surfer turned world-class golfer, now washed up, bankrupt and suffering from the yips (despite his embarrassing use of a belly-putter), holed up in a hotel in Luton (think somewhere in the Midwest for a touchstone) in preparation for a minor golf tournament we never see, and the odd characters who orbit this human wreckage and have all been somehow touched (inappropriately, one can imagine) or damaged by him, or as Ransom puts it,
“Bottom line: the only truly indispensable person in this set-up is Stuart Ransom. End of. Everything rests on these two broad shoulders…. It’s a huge, friggin’ responsibility, Gino, believe me. A massive strain. And the last thing I need – the last thing these two, broad shoulders need – is haters in my troupe. I don’t need people on my journey worrying about their journey.”
There’s Esther, Ransom’s overbearing Jamaican PA, whom he fires while she is in labor, Toby Whitaker, a self-described idea man, whose most enduring idea seems to be Turbo-Golf, Gene, a Job-like cancer survivor (not just cancer, but seven different types of cancer seven different times) who is the moral center of the novel, which becomes a problem when he has an affair with Valentine – an agoraphobic tattoo artist who specializes in Merkins, or, as another character puts it, “Twinkles… minnies… Lady Gardens” (Stay with me readers!) – whose mother thinks she is French since being struck on the head by one of Ransom’s stray golf balls. Do I dare mention her Muslim sex therapist? – a sex therapist not because he specializes in curing sexual dysfunctions, but because his method of dealing therapeutically with a patient’s trauma is by having sex with them – or his wife, one of two, who wears a burqa, despite her husband’s vehement disapproval? No, probably best not to. And finally there is Jen, a young barmaid that the dust jacket describes as having a “P.H.D. in bullshit”, who is eventually locked inside the boot (Briticism) of a car where she shits herself whilst wearing “an eye-wateringly tight white catsuit” and is most likely Stuart Ransom’s soul mate.
That’s not to say Barker’s novels are aimless and meandering, far from it. There is clearly a scaffolding set up by the author, but much like the matchstick cathedral a young character in her Booker Short-Listed Darkmans painstakingly constructs over the course of 800 pages, things often seem haphazard or willfully obscure until one is able to step back and have a good look at the cathedral Barker has put together. This structure is impressive on re-reading, but Barker’s ‘eccentricities’ are often cited as a reason for readers putting her books aside part way. This scaffolding, in her strongest work, often manifests itself as a sort of malevolent hand hovering over the proceedings – I often think of that big green hand from the old Star Trek series – whether it be the spirit of the jester Scogins in Darkmans, the rules of the ‘Loiter’ in Behindlings or the confluence of bizarre coincidences that keeps The Yips together, just. It’s that shambolic feeling that everything could completely fall apart (any of this sound like life, or the way fate operates in the real world?) by the next page that makes reading Nicola Barker unsettling to some and absolutely vital to her devotees.
These traits have also led to a critical schism: There are the reviewers who see her as a modern Dickens, chronicling the absurdities of everyday life with absolutely mesmerizing set pieces full of surreal, witty, Pinter-esque dialogue, exposing us to the uncomfortable, unspoken, internal truths each of us is made of and constantly hoping to obscure – a good recent example of such a critical approach being Sam Leith’s review in the Guardian. In the Guardian review, which I encourage you to read, Mr. Leith suggests that Jen’s stated philosophy (possibly spurious, since she’s a bullshitter throughout the novel, I’d like to add) of “No philosophy. No guidance. No structure. No pay-off. No real consequences. Just stuff and then more stuff” is the perfect summation of Nicola Barker’s work. When Gene suggests this philosophy sounds inherently unstable Jen agrees, saying, “That’s part of the fun. It’s constantly threatening to topple over – to crash.” It is fitting, in a Nicola Barker novel, that the serial liar in the book is the one who speaks the most profound truth about the book itself. Then there is the critical camp that begrudgingly accepts Barker’s place in modern English fiction but complains that her work is too weird, too chaotic, too unrestrained, and just plain tedious. Stephen Abell’s review in the Telegraph is a perfect example of this, tepidly detailing “Nicola Barker’s customarily exhausting blurt of eccentricity”. Sort of like Tolstoy with Tourette’s, I suppose, though I prefer Justin Cartwright’s phrase from his glowing Spectator review: “Harold Pinter on crack.” An oft-quoted example of Nicola’s writing ‘excess’ being the wonderful phrase to describe a character’s frantic heartbeat as it resounds in their head: “like a tiny but strenuous game of tennis being played by two wasps using gongs for rackets.”
I understand those who dismiss Nicola Barker as too British, or too eccentric, but I also wonder if these same critics have actually had a good look around recently. I understand that though art imitates life it shouldn’t be as random as some of life is, and that it is a bit of an artistic cop-out to use verisimilitude as an excuse, but on a daily basis I encounter absurd moments that would be dismissed as pointless or overly eccentric if they were between the pages of a novel. During the time I was reading The Yips I was at the post office when a gentleman walked in with a barely bubble-wrapped surf board. The clerk and I joked about the very idea of mailing an unpacked surf board but as we did she began to stare wistfully off into space, saying that she wished she was at North Shore. I asked her if she surfed and she said no, but quickly began an agonizing, dramatic, slightly incoherent account of going swimming in Hawaii on a gloomy evening at some surfer’s beach and being tossed out to sea and drowning, not nearly, but actually drowning. As she chuckled nervously, she mentioned that she should have known better when the parking lot was empty and there wasn’t a surfer in the water. The account ended with the postal worker more or less surrendering to the power of the sea, her body slowly drifting under, all around her dark and silent. In the last moment she says she woke as if from a dream and decided that she didn’t want to die this way and made one last desperate push towards the surface. As she rose a final time her husband’s hand grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her from the water. She continued to laugh nervously, nodding her head in approval at her own resurrection. I swiped my credit card and took my receipt and never did find out what happened when the guy tried to mail his surfboard, but I left thinking that maybe Nicola Barker isn’t so eccentric after all and maybe Roy McAvoy was right not to lay it up.
*Editor’s Note: For those looking for even more Tin Cup, behold the climactic final sequence: (Also note, Cheech Marin as the caddy.)