Crisscrossing Germany by train last week gave me more time than I usually have to read. So I read Doug Merlino's new book, The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. It's a wonderful book, and I warmly recommend it, even though it has totally nothing to do with the usual topics of this blog - actually, that's an additional reason to read it.
The book is presented as the story of a black and white basketball team: a black basketball coach and a wealthy white businessman came together to create a team of 8th-graders half of whom can from wealthy families in white Seattle in the mid 1980s, and the other half came from the black parts of town. They learned to play ball together, they became friends, they eventually even won a championship, and then they got on with life. 20 years later Doug Merlino, one of the white boys, set out to find what had happened to them all and if playing ball together had changed anything, and he found precious little to celebrate. The cultural conditioning on each side was too strong, playing basketball never dented it, the white boys grew into successful white professionals, and the black boys went back to their neighborhoods to be stunted. Sad.
This description doesn't do justice to the book, nor to the reality, for that matter. First, because the racial divide isn't so clear-cut. At least one of the white boys has grappled with serious emotional issues and lives on the edge of society, holding his own but far from being a pillar of anyone's community; meanwhile, a number of the black men have climbed out of their childhood circumstances, by dint of the strength of their character, while one or two others, having lived long enough to survive the drug wars and gain perspective on the potential of life, are on the path to offer their children more than their parents offered them.
Moreover the description doesn't do justice to the book because it's actually not about a baseball team at all. It's a cultural cross-cut of American society as seen by the men of Doug's generation. He has sections about hi-tech (Seattle!) and drug wars; prep-schools and ghetto schools, churches and welfare policies. He repeatedly talks about the power of movies to depict American society and also inform it. He discusses trends in music.While perched mostly in Seattle, he watches the ebbs and flows of American migration over the past half century. Immigration, too: not all the white boys came over on the Mayflower; some are newcomers finding acceptance. He tells how once black neighborhoods are being gentrified, and how that's playing out, and who's moving where. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc make a couple of appearances, once as the backdrop for the murder of one of the boys, once as a place to escape to. America is a gigantic and complicated place, not to be encapsulated in any single short description, but Merlino does an admirable job of depicting its complexity and diversity. Some of the diversity isn't even remotely regrettable: society needs money managers, wine technicians, grade school teachers, attorneys, journalists, janitors and church laypeople. All of them.
Most profoundly, however, it isn't a book about a black and white basketball team, because it's a story about universal growth. Doug's voice is what makes this happen. He's got an unusually strong sense of self-deprecation, though without any apologies or cringing. Simply: he wasn't a very good basketball player (neither was Myron, though); he wasn't that good at school, and didn't manage to hold out at the top-notch prep-school (neither did Eric or Damian, though), as a young adult it took him time to find his place (the same went for Maitland, and JT). He set off on the journey that eventually led to writing this book because he missed the old team, and was searching for some sort of closure for Tyler's death. The story begins with a pile of rambunctious pre-teens, then describes a game; after a few hundreds of pages with essentially no group scenes or sport descriptions, it ends with a reunion of thoughtful early mid-aged adults who get together once again and play basketball. When we first met them it was impossible to follow the characters; by the time we leave them, we not only can, we have. Each of them has made his own way through the same moment in history, bolstered or hampered by his own relations to it - which means, its a deeply human story.
Final note: English is a rich language. There are more than one way to say things. I was tickled by the extent to which Merlino uses a vocabulary I'm not familiar with, and not only because some of it comes from the black parts of town. He's got capping and peanut galleries, beat-boxing, cutting a line through fog, "I'll hit you" as an invitation to talk, and so on and on. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, so far as I could tell, the entire cast of the book, heroes supporters and one-line interlopers, doesn't contain one single Jew. Not surprising, of course, given how few of them there really are in America, but quite refreshing for me.
Anyway, it's May. Order the book and take it with you to the beach this summer.