Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro
Joe McGinniss, 1999

This is the first book on my list which is not fiction. McGinniss spent a season with the Italian football—should that be "soccer"?—team Castel di Sangro as they struggle against relegation. Not the least of the ironies is thrown up is that perhaps the greatest book ever written about football should come from America, one of the few countries where the game has never taken root.

The Miracle succeeds on several different levels. The ostensible sporting story which underpins it is dramatic, as Castel di Sangro avoid relegation in the penultimate game of the season, but this is really a story of relationships: McGinniss becomes close to the players as the season unfolds, is befriended by the team’s coach and is drawn into the sinister games of the quasi-mafiosi club owner and his henchman. Two of the players, friends of McGinniss, are killed in a car accident and another is arrested for drug-smuggling.

So far we have a magnificent sports book, raised above the ruck by McGinniss’ ability to get inside the sporting clichĂ©s and the vividness with which he draws the characters. But it is truly great for another reason, and it’s one I don’t think McGinniss intended: I came away from the book thinking that for all his privileged access and his genuine empathy with the players, he in fact fundamentally misunderstood the world he was living in. McGinniss becomes an unreliable narrator in his own life.

At the end of the book, Castel di Sangro go into their last match of the season have secured safety. The players tell McGinniss that he doesn’t need to go to the game—he should stay at home and relax. McGinniss goes to the match anyway. Castel di Sangro lose—lose because they have deliberately thrown the match. In Italy, if you have nothing to play for at the end of the season, but your opponent does, you come to an arrangement: il sistema, the system, Italians call it. You never know when you will want the favour returned. McGinniss can’t accept il sistema. It offends his sense of fair play, and he calls the players liars, cheats, cowards. Most of them he never speaks to again. The acceptance of the players, for which he so yearned, is withdrawn. Despite Castel di Sangro’s escape, the book ends in bitterness.

McGinniss can’t accept the ethics of the world he has aspired to enter. Of course match-fixing is wrong, but McGinniss can only view the situation through his own perspectives; he can't, or won't, enter into the players' maps of the world. He doesn't understand that "this is how we do things round here", that players' livelihoods are dependent on following these unwritten rules. He has been opinionated throughout the book (a privileged observer, he regularly harangues the team’s coach on his tactical errors) and ultimately his tragedy is that he can’t fully give himself over to the values of the world around him. It makes for a melancholy conclusion to what should have been a triumphant story.

How has it influenced me?
All writers, whether in fiction or factual, are faced with the task of organising their material: that’s what writing is. There is more crossover between the two than might immediately be apparent. If we see The Miracle in structural terms, we have a protagonist coming into an environment as an outsider, being partly assimilated and ultimately rejected. The outsider plot is certainly not original, but McGinnis retails it with power and pathos. And in all of my fiction, the hero begins as an outsider, and ends up as one. In The Dog of the North , like The Miracle of Castel di Sangro¸ the protagonist has goals whose implications he doesn’t fully understand, with profound implications for the achievement of those goals. And all of my protagonists struggle, usually with indifferent results, to reconcile their personal ideals with the grubby world around them.

I have long nurtured the idea of writing a story in which the fortunes of a sports team are central (also partly influenced by Jack Vance’s Trullion). Dragonchaser, with its galley-racing plot strand, was a part-scratching of that itch.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
The “outsider motif” is a strong mechanism for transmitting information about the world of the book to the reader.
Having a protagonist who doesn’t understand key elements of the world around him creates dramatic tension and the possibility of a strong denouement.
If you are telling a story about a principled man in a flawed world, the effect is much more powerful if you are not uncritically sympathetic to the protagonist.
Sport may ultimately be trivial, but writing about it doesn’t need to be.
Plotting is not just a sequence of events: it’s how the events fit together, what to include, and what to exclude.


Anonymous said...

Just to say, Tim, I've really been enjoying these snippets about books you've enjoyed and what you've taken away from them. I'll definitely look up this one.


Tim Stretton said...

Glad you've been enjoying them, Aliya (glad, in fact, that anyone's reading them at all...)

I had hoped to spin the books out for a bit longer -- all ten will be gone in a month at this rate. But there are plenty of other books out there to write about!


Nick said...

Hi Tim, I just finished 'Miracle' and I can't help but agree with your comments.I can understand McGuinniss's principled view regarding the match-fixing, but like you I feel he fails to take into account the reality of the situation. More specifically, the significant consequences for the Castel Di Sangro players were they not to 'play' along. Given that the foreigner Joseph Addo is threatened with Italian football prospects, the Castelo players were left with no choice but play their part. After all, most of these players were as Serie B players at their professional peak. Furthermore, I believe McGuinniss is wrong to invoke the deaths of Di Vincenzo and Biondi when casting moral judgement. Who is he to say that the two would not have complied just as everyone else?
But yes, very much enjoyed your blog!