which Harry, Ron, and Hermione attend—slack-jawed, like any
group of kids making their first trip to a big-league ball game.
I’m still a little fuzzy on the rules of Quidditch, but there’s action
aplenty in the match, and the postgame wrangle with the Death
Eaters makes fighting traffic after a Bears game seem like, well,
Isle of Joy, by Don Winslow (1996).
I’ve made it my personal mission to spread the
word about this marvelous early Winslow novel,
a PI tale set in 1958 New York that captures the
city at its most alluring: jazz, cocktails, Green-
wich Village, and, yes, a dollop of sports in the
form of a set piece in which hero Walter Withers
attends the iconic 1958 NFL Championship
game between the Colts and the Giants in the company of the
man he’s been hired to protect, Massachusetts senator and as-
piring presidential candidate Joe Kennealy, whose roving eye is
getting him in trouble. Yes, the Kennedy connection is intended.
Along with watching Johnny Unitas, Frank Gifford, et al., cavort
at the Polo Grounds, Withers takes the opportunity, while sit-
ting in the stands, to chat with the senator’s wife about her own
dalliance with a beatnik writer (think Jack Kerouac).
The Sun also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
A road trip to Pamplona for the bullfights
strikes Jake Barnes as a fine idea, but it all gets
complicated quickly, what with war-wounded
Jake’s doomed love of Lady Brett Ashley hang-
ing over the proceedings, as a gaggle of Brett’s
other suitors, all with functioning equipment,
This fishing trip may be the quintessential sporting interlude: a
hiatus from the messiness of human relationships in which few
words need be spoken between friends.
Underworld, by Don DeLillo (1997).
It remains one of my life’s reading goals to finish
the book the New York Times called “a dazzling,
phosphorescent work of art,” but as I’ve reported
here before, every time I try to do so, I fail to
make it much beyond the prologue, a dizzying,
rhapsodic re-creation of Bobby Thomson’s legendary walk-off home run on October 3, 1951,
enabling the New York Giants to snatch the National League
pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s a story that’s been told
thousands of times, of course, but never with the kinetic energy
DeLillo generates over 60 pages that read like a Charlie Parker
solo. Oh, and no one else has ever mentioned Jackie Gleason—
in the stands with Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor, and J. Edgar
Hoover—vomiting what looks like “someone’s taupe pajamas” all
over Frank’s “stout oxford shoes and fine lisle hose and on the soft
woven wool of his town-and-country trousers.”
Over the years, I’ve done my share of ranting on this page about the ten- dency of certain high-minded critics
to justify their enjoyment of a sports novel by
trotting out the old sports-as-metaphor gam-
bit. Yes, they’ll opine, Chad Harbach’s The
Art of Fielding is a fine book, but it’s not really about baseball.
Yes, it is, I always answer; you just don’t want to admit you liked
a sports novel.
Don’t worry: I’m not going down that road again. In fact, I
have something entirely different in mind, something that won’t
endanger the sensibilities of the high-minded crowd one bit.
Sometimes, in novels that are clearly not about sports—literary
fiction, genre novels, even children’s books—there will be a scene
set at a sporting event, or an interlude in which the characters engage in a sporting activity. If you happen to be a sports fan, these
scenes are often the most memorable parts of the books, though
they are never intended to be. So let the literary purists use metaphor as an excuse to go slumming; we sports fans will treasure
those moments of reprise in the midst of a novel’s onrushing plot
when an author frees us to head for the ball park. Here, then, are
my favorite sports scenes in novels not about sports.
Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming (1959).
If you happen to be a golfer, it’s a good bet
that what you remember most about Goldfinger
is not the woman entombed in gold. No, it’s
the golf match played between James Bond and
Goldfinger early in the book, as 007 is trying
to work his way into his nemesis’ world. Flem-
ing was a capable golfer (as is, incidentally, Sean
Connery), and it shows. The details are spot-on, from the golf
course (Royal St. Marks in the book, but Royal St. George’s in
real life) to the psychology of match play and high-stakes gam-
bling. No wonder Goldfinger is included in the Classics of Golf
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J. K.
Quidditch matches have always been my fa-
vorite parts of the Harry Potter books, but the
best of them all doesn’t involve Harry, except as
a fan. In The Goblet of Fire, the Quidditch season
has been cancelled at Hogwarts (the pitch is be-
ing used in the Triwizard Tournament, and those
nasty Death Eaters are causing trouble, too), but don’t worry;
Rowling gives us the Big Game: the Quidditch World Cup,
The Back Page
SPORTS AS INTERLUDE
BY BILL OTT