Make It, Take It by Rus Bradburd
I have to admit, right off, that aside from the work of H.G. Bissinger or pieces appearing sporadically in The New York Times, I haven't been too privy to writing about sports. And my knowledge of sports and the sports world at-large has been contained in childhood, where I tried out, for at least a season, every sport that I thought looked fun. But this was a matter of childhood play rather than adult competition. No one's livelihood -- I dearly hope -- was dependent on my ability to dribble a ball or sprint to first base.
The more adult parts of sporting come later in life for us -- for some, an education is dependent on an athlete's prowess, or the cash in the bowl sitting on a dinner table may be filled to the brim based on a fan's loyalty to his or her team. Others make full careers out of playing and coaching, and as soon as money is on the line, as with almost any scenario in America, things begin to get serious.
The characters in Rus Bradburd's Make It, Take It are all aware of this. From the very beginning, when we see Steve Pytel meet Jack Hood in a complicated but revealing flat tire scenario, to the theft of an SUV, to a coach claiming victory over another, these members of a revered society -- that of college basketball -- find themselves far in over their heads. This is a good thing. If compelling fiction is about finding ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, then Bradburd has given us just that. The stakes are high from page one, and the change in pace throughout this novel-in-stories makes each extraordinary situation an easy one to digest.
This does not mean, though, that all of it is digestible. The hurdle in writing about a microcosm of society, whether it be an Arizonan college basketball team or high school Texas football, is that each facet be treated sincerely. Take, for instance, an early scene in Bradburd's novel, wherein we see the complication of a coach bribing a player by way of the player's pregnant girlfriend, and both characters in the scene are given, certainly, an adequate depiction:
So that was it. This stupid bitch wanted Jamal Davis to piss away his whole life, the entire opportunity. Gage would've given anything to get this kind of offer as a high school senior. It was hard to listen to a player -- a boy, really -- toss State's future away with a dumb-ass decision. No point in fooling myself, Gage thought -- my future.
Aside from the issue of a third-person narrator using the words "stupid bitch" (are third person narrators now subjective?), there's an issue with this bit of the book being in third person. While others are in first person. And then in third person again. And novels-in-stories should be able to pull off this switcheroo, but in Make It, Take It, there's an indelicate balance. Without the instinctive wanting to root for our protagonists, Steve Pytel and Jamal Davis, no other characters get quite as close to our guts. For a novel about basketball, there's no real team to root for.
"Pytel had lived in the Southwest for years and knew the sun could push you out of bounds," Bradburd writes. "He had developed strategies to deal with the heat -- white shirts, short sleeves, all cotton, a freezer full of water bottles, and ice in his beer at night." Make It, Take It brings its own heat in all the right moments -- moments about God, about race, about money, about brand loyalty -- but melts away with the simpler things like language and pace and perspective. This deserves to be a slower book -- one that takes its time with each thought, each heavyweight sentence, each worried sigh by a player or his mother. The book, unlike its hero Pytel, still needs strategies to deal with the heat.
Make It, Take It by Rus Bradburd
Cinco Puntos Press