A professional tennis player learns just how hard the ball bounces.
After gathering much praise for his first novel, Brown (Floodmarkers, 2009) fails to bring his A-game to this muddled, melancholic follow-up about a professional athlete. The protagonist and narrator, Slow Smith, was once one of the best tennis players in the world, a doubles champion with a 148-mile-per-hour serve and a faithful partner in his hell-raising childhood pal, Kaz. But 23 years later, Slow is a ghost of his former self, taking charity gigs in the wake of the terrible car accident that put his pregnant wife Anne in a coma. Once Slow learns that Kaz was sleeping with his wife, he starts to go a bit bonkers. In a rare opportunity for original humor, Slow challenges Kaz to a duel but recants. Wallowing in his worsening misery, he drinks too much, canoodles with two former classmates and makes jarring, dichotomous declarations that disrupt the flow of an already prickly story. “I felt alive, dangerous. Free,” he says during a legendary hangover. Later, “I am a barbarian.” Only during Slow’s visits to Anne does his true nature emerge. Every day, Slow takes a Polaroid of his wife, maintaining her own habit of photographing him. “They all looked like someone who had at one point been my wife, had once been alive, had once kissed me and started to cry because she was afraid I wouldn’t love her as much once the baby was born.” While Brown clearly has a gift for language, the caustic dejection of his main man overwhelms the book’s black humor, and Slow’s potentially redemptive return to the sporting world is virtually an afterthought. By the time Anne is resurrected from her deep sleep, it’s difficult to see what she ever might have seen in Slow, even in the ghostly echo of a thousand photographs.
The line between comedy and tragedy is thin. This one swings hard but misses.