Books October 2007

Bowling Alone

The “greatest sports book ever written” is a mystery to Americans, for reasons all too revealing of national character.

To all but a tiny fraction of Americans, cricket is among the most mysterious and unimportant of sizeable human activities. The combination of triviality and obscurity is what’s significant. Thus the game of curling—in which a smooth, heavy, orbicular rock is launched across ice and escorted to its target by a pair of furiously sweeping ushers—may be cricket’s equal in its apparent inconsequentiality, but at least it is very quickly understandable and, thanks to its appearance in the Winter Olympics, briefly commands our sniggering attention once every four years. Cricket, on the other hand, is never on mainstream television—not even during the sport’s own quadrennial festival, the Cricket World Cup—and is never, even when watched for some while, anything other than baffling: Cricketers on a field are to your typical American onlooker as arcane as M’ikmaq hieroglyphs scratched on birch bark.

I know this for a fact because for years I have played cricket here, in the United States. From time to time, as I have stood at my fielder’s station on the boundary of the playing field, a passerby has asked me what is going on, and I have attempted to explain; and each time, the conversation has ended with my interlocutor giving a humorous shake of the head and professing—not without a certain pride, I have sensed—his enduring confusion. The oddity, of course, is that cricket is the biggest bat-and-ball game in the world. It is played or followed by fathomless millions. Kids—even American kids— have no problem picking up the basics of the pastime in the course of a single sunny afternoon. This summer, I asked my two oldest sons—gum-chewing, DC–wearing Manhattanites aged 7 and 6—if they wanted to play some cricket; they agreed, and chattered about it to their classroom buddies. Before long, a group of seven or eight kids from PS 3 were batting and bowling once a week at the cement playground at Hudson and Horatio. You might still be able to see traces of the wicket they chalked onto the wall.

The general American mystification with cricket, then, is not merely anomalous but a tad perverse—you might even say it’s the stuff of a national blind spot (“a region of understanding in which one’s intuition and judgment always fail,” according to my dictionary). Well, what of it? Why not turn a blind eye to a complicated, time-consuming, weird- looking sport? And don’t we have our own game involving sticks and balls and hot summer days?

A possibly eccentric but, I would suggest, far-reaching response to this line of argument would be as follows: To be deprived of knowledge of cricket is to be deprived, at the very least, of a full appreciation of C. L. R. James’s strange and wonderful Beyond a Boundary, the American publication of which occurred almost a quarter century ago. The original, British publication came in 1963, and ever since, the book has gone down pretty well with the critics. “To say ‘the best cricket book ever written’ is pifflingly inadequate praise,” blurbs the most current U.K. paperback edition, which quotes this further encomium:

Great claims have been made for [Beyond a Boundary]: that it is the greatest sports book ever written; that it brings the outsider a privileged insight into West Indian culture; that it is a severe examination of the colonial condition. All are true.

Such praise cannot be dismissed as self-serving hyperbole: Derek Walcott has written of “a noble book,” and V. S. Naipaul, in the days before his glorious unpleasantness had fully manifested itself (needless to say, he eventually turned on James), rejoiced at “one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies.”

In this country, however, Beyond a Boundary is barely read. Although there now exists a veritable academic industry devoted to the study and celebration of James’s brilliant and idiosyncratic political-historical-literary oeuvre, very little attention is paid to the meditative, cricket-saturated memoir—if that’s what it is—for which he is most widely known. The reason is that its contents are largely incomprehensible. An anonymous prefatory “Note on Cricket” in the American edition states that the

themes of this book reach, as its title suggests, far beyond the boundaries of the cricket field, and no detailed knowledge of the game is needed to appreciate their implications.

That’s a good one. The truth is that unless you know cricket, you haven’t got a snowball’s chance in Port of Spain of knowing what C. L. R. James—whose triply initialed name belongs in a cricket scorebook—means to say. For example, in the book’s opening section, he describes for two rhapsodic pages a Trinidadian master of cutting named Arthur Jones. I know exactly what he’s on about because I know cricket; indeed, from the age of 10 (in Europe, then in the U.S.A.), I have hit countless cut shots through the segment between point and third man. You, on the other hand, almost certainly wouldn’t know a cut from a shaving nick, or a third man from Harry Lime.

Of course, it’s quite possible to enjoy a piece of writing while remaining at a loss about much of what it means: Think of the murky pleasure to be derived from leafing through, say, the poems of Ne-ruda with nothing but a smattering of Mediterraneanese (that quasi-language comprising remembered bits of French, Italian, and Spanish) to draw on.

The foreignness of Beyond a Boundary is not this extreme. For one thing, it is written in English—and grippingly so, for James writes with a philosopher’s love of exactness. For another thing, it contains passages that make familiar sense. When, for example, the author recalls the agonizing matter of his choosing which cricket club to join—this is colonial Trinidad in the ’20s, and the membership of each club accords with a particular shade of skin color—we recognize the casual self-excoriation involved in the statement “I became one of those dark men whose ‘surest sign of … having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself.’” And when he discusses race and memory—a discussion that includes the aside that T. S. Eliot “is of special value to me in that in him I find more often than elsewhere, and beautifully and precisely stated, things to which I am completely opposed”—or, say, his obsession with Vanity Fair (the satirical Thackeray novel, not the self-satirizing magazine), or tells the story of how his grandfather saved the day at the sugar­cane factory, we know where we are.

But such moments are no more than clearings in a forest: If James expands his cultural references, it is only in order that he can return us, with uncompromising specificity, still deeper into the thickets of cricket. For instance:

This modern theory that the leg-glance does not pay is a fetish, first because you can place the ball, and secondly if you can hook then the life of long-leg is one long frustration.

He kept the ball well up, swinging in late from outside the off-stump to middle-and-off or thereabouts.

To the length ball he gets back and forces Grimmett away between mid-wicket and mid-on or between mid-wicket and square-leg.

At no point, it should be stated, is James engaging in gratuitous sports talk; these technicalities are integral to human portraits of certain cricketers, who themselves shed light on politics and aesthetics, which in turn are illuminants of … cricket. For it is James’s elaborately articulated claim that cricket simpliciter is a worthy end of inquiry—indeed, is an art on a par with theater, ballet, opera, and dance. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” is the central, famous question asked by the book; and it’s a question that by its very terms argues for an expansion, and elevation, of our understanding of this sport.

It would be easy, indeed boringly so, to poke fun at such an enterprise (can there be a more old-fashioned theoretical quest than the true definition of art?). Much more interesting is the question of what underlies James’s unusual and passionate attempt to upset established cultural hierarchies and categories. An answer, as James makes delightfully clear in the first chapter of Beyond a Boundary, begins in 1907 with a window in Tunapuna, a small town in provincial Trinidad.

The window in question belonged to the James family, in a house “superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket” of the recreation ground on which local men played cricket. By standing on a chair, a 6-year-old boy could for hours watch black men dressed in white repetitively organizing themselves into mysterious patterns on a green sunlit space, and could hear the sounds that not long before had enchanted a schoolboy named Stephen Dedalus:

and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.
Presented by

Joseph O'Neil

Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland will be published in 2008 by Pantheon.

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