||By Bill Barich (Nigeria 196466)
The Lyons Press, $22.95
Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196566)
Bill Barichs The Sporting Life: Horses, Boxers, Rivers, and a Russian Ballclub consists of three essays about horse racing, two each about boxing and fishing, and one about baseball.
Having avoided the first three sports all of my life, I picked up this collection reluctantly and turned immediately to Going to the Moon, about the Moscow Red Devil baseball team. With understated style and masterful character sketches, Barich lured me to the remaining seven essays.
Barich followed the Moscow Red Devils, made up of four tennis players, a Olympic handball gold medalist, three javelin throwers, and players from various other sports, as they barnstormed through California losing to junior college and high school teams.
When they werent playing, the Red Devils sold Russian trinkets and souvenirs. When one fan wavered at the price of a nesting doll shaped like Mikhail Gorbachev, Arkady, the Red Devils equipment manager selling the doll, lifted Gorby and broke him apart to reveal a smaller doll inside. Look, Brezhnev. Arkady smiled. Inside Brezhnev was Nikita Khrushchev. Inside Khrushchev was Joseph Stalin. And inside Stalin was a very tiny Vladimir Lenin.
Previously appearing in The New Yorker, California Magazine, and Sports Illustrated, these essays portray the richness of character and energy that many American men mask beneath their undemonstrative nature. Barichs own straight-forward style reflects this controlled disposition.
Even when he is the central character, as in the fishing essays,
Barich leads his readers along conversationally, in a disarming style reminiscent of Hemingway.
Although Barich wishes to extend the metaphor of play to define our humanity, I would argue that he needs a much longer collection. If he means play in the broadest sporting sense, we need a broader selection of activities. None of the play in this short collection relates to women. Indeed, the play in this collection illustrates stereotypical boy-men clinging to their boyhood fantasies.
At least one piece might appeal to women, however. In The Quarter Pole, Barich takes us into Cajun country where he dines on grilled alligator sausages for appetizers and frog legs deep-fried in butter and garlic sauce for a main entry. He has traveled to Quarter Pole race track in Acadia Parish, Louisiana, to write about the last bush track . . . probably on the planet. Cajun country provides a delightful cast from which to choose, and Barich calmly uncovers the essence of several off-beat characters. The ambiance of Cajun country provides a superb contrast to Barichs opening essay Chasers set at Ascot race track which dates back to 1711 and Windsor royal.
In Barichs fishing stories, he snaps vivid pictures of the California mountains. Blended in with autumn colors and elaborate detail about fishing are glimpses of history that animate these secluded areas. For example, throughout Feather River Country, Barich reports the impressions of transcendentalist Dame Shirley Clappe, who settled there with her husband during the nineteenth century Gold Rush era. Even more impressive, however, is Barichs Thoreau-like knowledge of the plants and vegetation:
The foothills by the stream were tangled with chaparral greasewood, toyon, chamiso. Dame Shirley hated this stuff. She thought the knotted shrubbery stood like vegetable skeletons along the dreary waste. Chaparral was plantation of antlers. . . . . Next to the thicket, there were some manzanita bushes. They were small, with smooth, twisted reddish limbs. Manzanitas put out a fruiting cluster that looks like little apples which is what manzanita means in Spanish . . . . Manzanitas are at their aesthetic peak in the winter, when the rains come. Moisture seems to seep into them, and they get slick and oily, resonant with color.
A look at the entire bag
This is a mixed bag of Americana, and I expect readers will have mixed reactions to Barichs collection. However, he is a master at blending description, dialogue, and personality. His entertaining sketches demonstrate a gift for involving himself just enough with his story to unravel the heart of his subjects. At his best, he accomplishes this with sharp, focused snapshots of off-beat characters and interesting settings.
Tony Zurlo is a writer and teacher, and the author of poetry, short fiction, and books on China and Japan.