Friday, January 25, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

Full Time
Tony Cascarino/Paul Kimmage, 2001

For the first time, "Why Should I Read..." looks at biography--or is it autobiography? The question "whose book is this?" is central in this case. Full Time tells the story of Tony Cascarino, a professional footballer of star (but not superstar) status. Cascarino has since moved into a second incarnation as journalist and pundit. In neither of these latter careers does he appear a reflective or articulate man; yet Full Time is one of the most introspective and precise insights into the life of a professional sportsman. A paradox? No, because at this point enter Kimmage, Cascarino's ghost writer.

Paul Kimmage was also a professional sportsman--a journeyman cyclist good enough to finish the Tour de France--who became notorious for his first book A Rough Ride, a bleak account of his journey into disillusionment with the sport he loved. Kimmage clearly is both reflective and articulate, and his skill as a ghostwriter is not just to capture Cascarino's thoughts, but to prompt the kind of introspection necessary to make a wonderful book about an ordinary career.

Cascarino does not emerge as a particularly likeable character: his serial infidelities, gambling and occasional loutishness are not an appealing combination. Here again, Kimmage is to be commended, firstly for avoiding becoming too close to his subject, and secondly for extracting such honesty. If, in the end, the reader ends up with a grudging admiration for Cascarino, it's because of this honesty: he does not try to avoid responsibility for his misbehaviour, and he admits with almost masochistic relish his failings as a human being. It's hard to avoid the feeling that there's something expiatory in his frankness.

This makes the book sound like therapy, which it isn't. For anyone interested in football--or indeed 'elite' performers in any field--there are fascinating insights. One of the most absorbing facets is the self-doubt which dogged Cascarino throughout his career. Those of us who are writers will know all about the nagging critical voices which can so undermine confidence. For a footballer, particularly a forward, where instant and accurate responses are essential, these negative thoughts can be career-destroying. At least writers have these crises in private, and can solve them at their own pace.

Full Time is a magnificent achievement, a sporting biography which casts aside the usual platitudes and vacuousness to explore the psychology of the professional footballer. More of the credit is due to Kimmage than Cascarino, I suspect; it's an unusually concrete expression of 'what a writer does'. Cascarino provided the raw material, the conversation which formed the basis of the text: but it was Kimmage who organised the material, arranged the revelations for maximum effect, drew out insights and linkages, and imposed the pattern and order to make 'art' out of what otherwise would have been saloon-bar reminiscences.

Even if you don't like football--that's 'soccer', American readers!--Full Time is a perceptive character study, a powerful exercise in viewpoint, and an illustration of how the writer can interpret and enhance experience.

How has it influenced me?
It's unlikely I will ever write a sports biography (although I am open to offers). Full Time, situated at the confluence between biography, autobiography, reportage and fiction, represents for me the touchstone for how they should be written. If we see Cascarino as Kimmage's fictional construct, a flawed hero, then he inhabits the same kind of anti-hero space as Beauceron, the protagonist of The Dog of the North (although I like to imagine Beauceron has a bit more composure in front of goal).

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • ghost-writing can be an honourable occupation
  • an unlikeable person can still be a sympathetic protagonist
  • the writer can be found in his interpretation of the events on the page, not the events themselves


David Isaak said...

Now that's a fascinating addition to your list of important books.

As to ghosting being an honorable occupation--sure. Supporting your writing with other writing has a long tradition.

In fact, it used to be possible to support your writing with other fiction. Graham Greene divided his output into "novels" and "entertainments", and Robert Graves wrote his "potboilers" like I, Claudius to support his poetry.

But I think that's harder to do nowadays--though Evan Hunter did a pretty good job of supporting a novel career by writing all those Ed McBain books.

I have a good friend who is now co-writing books with celebrities; he's having fun and making money, and also supporting his screenwriting habit...

Tim Stretton said...

The Graves one always amuses me: in a hundred years, who'll be reading his poetry (ditto Thomas Hardy, although I think his poetry is pretty good).

Sometimes you don't know what you're good at...