‘How are you gonna write the book,’ demands Ben Markovits’ teammate and sometime adversary Bo Hadnot, ‘if you don’t know a thing about basketball?’ Perhaps a pertinent re-phrasing would be: ‘how are you going to read the book?’ Playing Days is a sports novel, but it’s also a study of an individual consciousness and a well-formed, conventionally psychological realist novel. Rather than shy away from the technical language of basketball, Markovits makes an interesting virtue of what could have proven a stumbling block.
The essentials of the novel are transparently those of Markovits’ life, and Playing Days transparently the book that came out of the experience it describes. A young man just out of college, also called Ben Markovits, ends up playing minor league pro basketball in a small Bavarian town because it seems the path of least resistance and because ‘it would give me time to write. And something to write about.’ That ‘something,’ the great theme of Playing Days, is the adult world, accidentally encountered in the form of Anke, a slightly older German girl whose three-year old-daughter introduces Ben to ‘the air of fraught, responsible adult life a child brings.’
Maturity comes quickly for sportsmen, too, and it is this fact – that the world of the good but not great professional sportsman connects the child to the adult to the already too old within a span of around ten years – that lends Playing Days its predominantly muted, reflective tone. Ben is surrounded by examples of players for whom the moment has passed, or will never arrive, ‘trading on the difference between talent and youth.’ It’s perhaps no accident that the name of Ben’s aging teammate, Hadnot, is resonant of ‘has been,’ for this is the cautionary role his character plays.
Markovits is unafraid of dedicating large chunks of his novel to several of the season’s significant games. What are we to make of a blow-by-blow account of a basketball game, as laymen readers? Take, for example, this involved description of a practice game:
‘I pushed my way to the blocks, then cut back up. Olaf set me a screen at the elbow, and I curled off it…’
There’s plenty more like that, but it doesn’t bore, because Markovits makes sure the play is connected to the book’s broader romantic and psychological narratives. This language is a source of richness and strangeness, even if you don’t know what a screen is, or how to curl off. At times, too, the technical detail is broken mid-game by a profounder language that has no place on court, a shift lovely in its incongruity:
‘And then [coach] Henkel gave me a tap on the head, gentle as a benediction, and sent the two of us in.’
Ultimately, basketball and the ‘climate of assessment’ that haunts all the players is a way of saying something about the quiet, subtle disappointments that accompany the transition from adolescence to maturity. Not quite a metaphor; more of a medium, through which ‘ordinary adulthood…[like] one of those weird formal occasions you have to go to as a kid’ is carefully explored.
Dan Eltringham is an editor at The Literateur.