The Best Sports Novels Match Sport and Style

On some old episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered, Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen talked about their unique irresistible song elements. Those bits in songs that aren’t the main hook, or even an integral part of the song itself, but, when they appear, automatically make you like a particular song. Like, for me, if there’s clapping hands and screaming in unison, I’m totally in. (See, for example, the ending part of Jeff Rosenstock’s USA. The “Et Tu, USA, Et tu, et tu, USA” bit.)

Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, is a well-informed guide to explaining how our brains process music, anticipating patterns, giving you a chemical rush when you’re right about the next note or phrase, how these patterns replicate and slowly adapt while also crafting and dictating your taste in music.

There’s nothing quite that parallel when it comes to talking about fiction and what tickles your pleasure centers, but there are definitely plot patterns, certain stylistic elements that individuals—and larger groups of readers taken in aggregate—respond to more positively than others. The straightforward, personal-essay nature of “Cat Person,” for instance. But for every style that can be taught, repeated, refined, and praised, there are a bunch of literary elements that do the opposite and totally derail a book.

I don’t think I could possibly create a complete taxonomy of the literary beats that get me excited or turn me off, although I’m sure I could come up with a half-dozen various bits that run throughout the books that I consider to be my favorite. But that’s not very fun! Instead, let’s focus on the negatives. There are two things that—for years—have particularly bugged me about certain narratives: The Ballroom Dancing Problem and the Too Many Coincidences Problem. Both of which are found in Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows, released earlier this month by FSG and translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel.

Theory of Shadows by Paolo Maurensig, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (FSG)

Before totally crapping on this book, which I’m mostly going to do, although I fully admit the crap I am about to dump is as much about my personal reading habits and likes/dislikes as anything else, I want to say that Anne Milano Appel is a legend and nothing I’m about to write should reflect on the quality of her translation. A quick search of the Translation Database brings up fifteen (fifteen!) translations by Anne to come out in the past decade. That’s an incredible rate, especially when you figure in The Art of Joy (which is something around 7,000 pages long) and three books by Claudio Magris (which are stylistically challenging and long).

In terms of Theory of Shadows, I think the translation is good. It all fit together, the tone and register were consistent, and the use of including some untranslated phrases from Portuguese was a bold and largely successful choice. Translation, good; plot of the book? Not so much.

The Ballroom Dancing Problem. There are a bunch of different names I could choose to try and describe this very particular plotting issue that drives me insane. The Everyone’s a Photographer Issue. The Who Doesn’t Love Journalism? Conundrum. Or, more to the point, We All Know Everything About the History of Chess, Right?

Without even naming a single example, I’m sure that you already have a decent idea of what I’m referring to. Think back to the movies of the 1980s. Movies in which the main protagonist is really into a particular hobby that, in real life, is enjoyed by a pretty limited audience. Ballroom dancing, for example. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with ballroom dancing, but out of the thirty people in the restaurant where I’m writing this, I’ll bet fewer than three have any lasting interest in ballroom dancing. Which is a problem if you’re trying to build a plot around a ballroom dancing competition. What would your character even talk to people about? The only thing that matters is winning the General Pickins Trophy given out every other year to the best ballroom dancing team in this microscopic small town in central Ohio.

So what ends up happening—almost every time—is that the book or movie ends up positing a world in which every damn character is as obsessed with ballroom dancing as the protagonist. No matter who the female lead encounters—the local librarian who is also the unofficial keeper of the town’s history, a fast-food clerk, a drunk on the street, a random high-school student—they all know all about her ballroom dancing ambitions and how hard it’s going to be to overthrow Tiffy and Mark, the arrogant couple who totally crush on the dance floor. (And probably bully ugly kids and are wealthy Young Republicans who think Reagan is “totally rad!” but really just care about winning that General Pickins Trophy because, secretly, almost unwittingly, they know that this is the high point of their lives and that trophy would just be so beautiful on Tiffy’s dresser.)

No one cares about ballroom dancing! Or not enough people for this sort of movie to even sniff believability. If you’re a writer and you’re working on something like this—just quit. Your plot is thin, your book forgettable.

And yet, that’s what happens throughout Theory of Shadows. Granted, it is about real-life, world-champion chess player, Alexander Alekhine, which was what initially drew me to pick this up. Based on Nabokov’s The Defense, I assume that all books about chess are intelligent puzzles filled with intrigue and characters living on the edge of sanity because chess.

That is sort of what we get here. Just to give you a brief synopsis: Theory of Shadows is about the shadowy circumstances surrounding Alekhine’s death. It focuses on the last little bit of his life, when he was living in Estoril, Portugal, preparing for a championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik. A Russian exile, Alekhine collaborated with the Nazis to protect his wife at the time and played as a German representative. He always claimed that his life choices were “all about the chess!” but others weren’t so keen on that, especially given that Alekhine wrote about chess for a German publication and included a bunch of anti-semitic shit. (Or the Nazis added it.) People weren’t so happy with this general situation, so there’s been speculation that Russia wanted to reclaim the World Title (god I wish chess had massive belts for their champions like WWE or boxing) from this dissident collaborationist.

This narrative exists within a frame-tale of the author going to Portugal to write a novel about Alekhine and finally figure out what really happened when Alekhine died. Was it a heart attack? Did he choke on meat? Was he murdered?

All this sounds intriguing enough, right? A shadowy conspiracy in which world politics are played out through the chess world. Unfortunately, and going back to my original critique, the book’s plotting is so tedious and is basically one recap of Alekhine’s Wikipedia page after another.

I could pull out some quotes, but this post is already long and I have about fifteen more things I want to stuff in here, so instead, let me just run down a series of plot points that land this book 100% within the realm of Ballroom Dancing movies that I dislike:

1) Alekhine walks into a bar in Portugal, trying to scam a drink. There’s a chess table set up. He goes over, a mysterious guy wants to play him, and, as it turns out, this guy is responsible for arranging his next big world-championship match and sets Alekhine up with some cash and a hotel room. (This is such weak plotting and could be part of my coincidence complaint below.)

2) At the hotel, Alekhine meets multiple people. Every single one, without exception, knows who he is immediately, and constantly recites back to him his entire chess career. This is insane.

3) Early in the book, a random Portuguese reporter—who happens to be really well-versed in the history of chess and Alekhine’s career—interviews him for a women’s magazine, which is really just a way for Maurensig to dump all the information possible about Alekhine’s personal life. And it still basically all relates to chess.

4) Not exactly a different example, but just read this bit of the interview:

“Oh yes, I remember clearly one day when, together with Chess, I managed to cross the Polish border without a passport.” [. . .]

“And who was Chess?”

“He was my beloved Siamese cat. I always took him with me, even to the tournaments. The regulations did not prohibit it, maybe because no one had ever thought it possible that a chess player might bring along his cat. But Chess was a quiet little creature; he strolled among the tables and didn’t bother anyone. When he sensed that I was in trouble, he would leap on my knees and encourage me by purring.”


5) Once Alekhine’s love life has been dropped on the reader, we get Correira, a rich guest at the hotel who recites—again, like a Wikipedia article come to life—Alekhine’s dicey history with the Germans. Because obviously Correira is a huge chess fanatic and knows all the ins-and-outs of Alekhine’s career. Especially about the anti-semitic articles he wrote. This section could be a lot worse than it is, but still, it’s clear that Maurensig needs to convey this bit of information to his readers, so he uses this chess-lover married to a Jewish woman to throw that information out there long paragraph after long paragraph.

These may not seem as egregious as they could, but let me assure you that that’s because I’m kind of holding back. Every character in this book exists in relation to chess and chess history. And because they can’t talk about anything other than that, they’re less than one-dimensional. There just aren’t that many people in the world—even in 1946, or especially in 1946 when there were some rather serious ramifications of the recent World War occupying most everyone’s thoughts—who know that much about chess and who only ever want to talk about chess. Chess is great, but it’s only life-consuming for chess champions—not for the random people they encounter.

Too Many Coincidences. It’s hard to think of a work of fiction that doesn’t have some sort of coincidence driving its primary plot. Something unplanned has to happen to the main character to set everything into motion. I accept that. But there are essential coincidences and deus ex machina sorts of coincidences that are just ridiculous. Purge by Sofi Oksanen is a great example of a book that runs on the most improbable coincidences. Most people are willing to just overlook these—“fiction is where you suspend your disbelief, asshole!”—but when it gets to be too much . . .

Not only does the primary plot of Theory of Shadows function thanks to a string of random coincidences that are improbable to the point of crazy-making, but the frame story . . . oh man, the frame story.

As already mentioned, this opens with “the author” in Estoril, Portugal, in 2012, super disappointed that he was unable to solve the mystery of Alekhine’s death.

But wait! Before we get to the random shit that closes this book, here’s the opening of the second paragraph of this most-singular novel:

It all started with my inveterate passion for chess. I have never played in a qualifying tournament, or achieved standing in the official ranking; indeed, I consider myself an enthusiastic amateur.

GOD DAMN IT. Stop with all the chess! The only thing I think this book is succeeding at is making me hate chess. I read it looking for some sort of politically-driven espionage novel of murder and secrecy, and instead I got chess chess chess chess. And never the actual game! References to it. Talk about it, but nothing specific enough to convince me that Maurensig knows anything at all about the actual game of chess. This is a book about talking about the chess. It’s the worst sort of sports novel, in which none of the characters are fleshed out—not even to the point that you can believe in them as players of the sport/game in question.

I want to move on, so forget about my second point. Basically, at the end of the novel, once Alekhine is dead, once we’ve learned all of his life in the most shoehorned of manners, once all of that, which, who cares, whatever, it’s done, the author reappears, still bummed out, and randomly meets someone who randomly fills in all the necessary details. I’m not kidding about this next quote—these are legitimate bits of this novel:

I was about to leave Portugal at this point, though my search had not produced the desired result. Without a satisfactory conclusion, my novel was doomed to be rewritten from the ground up, or might even end up in the trash. But fortune came to my aid: [. . .] I was approached by a woman who said she was an employee at the Hotel do Parque.

Wait. WAIT. “Approached by a woman” while on a walk along the coast? This is the most transparent deus ex machina moment I’ve ever encountered.

“My name is Violeta da Silva,” she began without preamble. “I heard from a friend who works at a hotel where you are staying that you are interested in talking to someone who knew Dr. Alexandre Alekhine personally.”


My eyes widened.

Who cares. We’re done here. You all know what happens next: Her father fills in the details and this is a garbage way of moving your plot along. I’m done with this. Let’s have a minute of fun.


Clearly I didn’t like this book. Many other people will, and good for them! There are more than enough books out there and to each his own. What this book did do though was get me thinking about sports books.

As I was reading this, I came up with a half-assed theory about sports books (or books about sporting figures) and how their style was dictated by the sport itself. There’s not a chess book out there that isn’t a cerebral puzzle. Baseball books are about America. Upward mobility dominates basketball books. I haven’t read Stephen Florida, but it’s strong. Tennis books are long like Infinite Jest. Books about sports are reflections of those sporting qualities in the sportsmen themselves.

But to check my theory, I asked everyone on Twitter to give me the name of their favorite sports-related book. And man, they totally did! Few surprises, a lot of books that I’ve read, too small a sample to make any definitive statements about. (Probably because I’m blocked/muted by all but like seven people on Twitter.)

Despite all these wonderful suggestions, I just want to point out the greatest sports book of all time: Toss by former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, Boomer Esiason.

Look at that cover! It’s a football because Boomer (definitely his real name) played football! So he wrote about football! Ok, ok. “Wrote.” “About football.”

New York Stars, the rookie quarterback figures the world is his oyster. Reality sets in after meeting his football “family“—the all-too benevolent owner, Papa Goldman; his daughter, the Stars’ Director of Communications, Dominique, who has a certain fondness for quarterbacks; a frustrated head coach; a team full of malcontents and racial tensions; and a very shady Director of Player Personnel.

But all of his concerns become secondary when an ex-Stars quarterback is murdered, and Brody finds himself hustling just to stay alive, while confronting the scars of his own past. With a little luck, smarts, and help from a beautiful aspiring actress, this is one time he can’t drop the ball. Someone seems intent on sabotaging the Stars, and perhaps the future of the entire football league is at stake.

Fuck. And. Yes.

But really, what’s up with that opening sentence? “New York Stars, the rookie quarterback figures the world is his oyster.” I might be a moron, but I don’t think that makes sense? Who cares! SPORTS.

How much do you want to bet that every single person in this book is in love with football and marks time by football match games and victories and Super Bowls and player careers? Any one of you reading this would hate the people in that book—and that book itself—and yet a certain percentage would totally forgive the allegedly horrible plot (I’m never reading this crap, although I sold it at Schuler Books & Music and man, it’s still out there, on the B&N.com) if it was about chess. (Final nail. Sorry, Theory of Shadows, but I did not like you.)

Although, to be fair, Big Booming Boomer has a strong competitor in Derek Jeter. This is a goldmine of jacket copy jokes:

An average kid with an above average talent for predicting baseball pitches tries to help his favorite player out of a slump in this entertaining novel from bestselling authors Tim Green and Derek Jeter.

Jalen DeLuca loves baseball. Unfortunately his dad can’t afford to keep him on the travel team. His dad runs a diner and makes enough to cover the bills, but there isn’t enough to cover any extras. So Jalen decides to take matters into his own hands and he sneaks into the home of the New York Yankee’s star second baseman, James Yager, and steals a couple of balls from his personal batting cage. He knows that if he can sell them, he’ll be able to keep himself on the team.

But like the best-laid plans—or in this case the worst!—Jalen’s scheme goes wrong when Yager catches him. But Jalen has a secret: his baseball genius. He can analyze and predict almost exactly what a pitcher is going to do with his next pitch. He can’t quite explain how he knows, he just knows. And after proving to Yager that he really can do this, using a televised game and predicting pitch after pitch with perfect accuracy, the two agree to a deal. Jalen will help Yager out of his batting slump and Yager won’t press charges.

However, when he begins to suspect that the team’s general manager has his own agenda, Jalen’s going to need his friends and his unusual baseball talent to save not only Yager’s career, but his own good name.

Man, Simon & Schuster is into some shit! “Like the best-laid plans—or in this case the worst!” should be on the back of every damn book. Forget Jeter. He’s just Baseball Tom Brady.


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