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Levels of the Game Paperback – November 1, 1979
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“This may be the high point of American sports journalism.” ―Robert Lipsyte, The New York Times
“McPhee has produced what is probably the best tennis book ever written. On the surface it is a joint profile of . . . Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, but underneath it is considerably more--namely, a highly original way of looking at human behavoir . . . He proves his point with consummate skill and journalistic artistry. You are the way you play, he is saying. The court is life.” ―Donald Jackson, Life
“John McPhee's Levels of the Game . . . alternates between action on the court and interwoven profiles of the contestants. It is a remarkable performance--written with style, verve, insight and wit.” ―James W. Singer, Chicago Sun-Times
About the Author
John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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"Levels of the Game" is constructed around a point-by-point account of a single tennis match played in 1968 by Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, an African-American and a German-American who were the soul of the championship American Davis Cup team, playing both as singles and as doubles partners. Ashe and Graebner were as much friends as fiercely competitive rivals can ever be, despite their markedly different personalities and world-views. Graebner, the 'spoiled' scion of a conservative Christian dentist, plays stiff and predictable power tennis, "Republican tennis" as it were. Ashe, also a 'privileged child' despite his color and father's illiteracy, is "bold, loose, liberal, flat-out Democratic." Several critics have made McPhee's point more explicitly than McPhee would ever do: "You are the way you play."
Like the volleys of an exciting match, the profiles of Ashe and Graebner - their childhoods, their fathers, their training in life and tennis, their quirks and virtues - are lobbed back and forth between the points of the game, from Ashe's first serve to Ashe's last winning stroke. McPhee is crafty; he depicts both men with implicit admiration and maintains as judicious an air of impartiality as an nominee for the Supreme Court under hostile questioning. But there's little doubt about whom he assumes HIS readers will root for, and his tone shows it. Ashe's victory - Ashe's whole career - was a triumph of Civil Rights in America over the forces of stand-pat hold-on-to-your own conservatism. Anyone who doesn't cheer when Ashe scores a point in this match has totally missed the point.
When McPhee wrote this book, in 1969, it must have seemed that the societal match which it symbolized was almost over, almost won. Racism had 'charged the net' in the South of Wallace and Faubus, and the ball had been lobbed out of reach. Watching the ads on TV today, couple-watching on the streets of American cities, noting the approval ratings of the First Couple in the White House, one could indeed say that Ashe's victory was prophetic of America's racial Redemption. "Game, set, match to Lieutenant Ashe," McPhee wrote; "When the stroke is finished, he is standing on his toes, his arms flung open, wide, and high."
However, if we take this historic match as an analogy for the cultural match-up between conservatism and liberalism, McPhee's success as an oracle is less clear. In 1969 perhaps, the egalitarian ideals of the New Deal and the Great Society might have seemed pervasive and permanent. The 'loose' liberalism expressed in Ashe's tennis was the preferred style of American youth, and the tight hind-end game played by Graebner didn't stand a chance.
Ahh, that was before the Culture Wars, before the 'Southern Strategy', before Reaganism and Ollie North, before egalitarian idealism got lost in the Bushes. What McPhee didn't foresee was that Clark Graebner's 'Republican tennis' could claw and scratch, rage and pout, and make a comeback. After all, they play how they are.
this one details the lives of two tennis greats and the US game itself comes into focus.
McPhee must be the greatest of American writers!
Most recent customer reviews
He used a match to segue into each players life