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Winners!

A title like that doesn’t usually get my interest, but by odd serendipity I was called by a publicist for Eric Martin’s new novel and asked to speak for 5 minutes before a couple of his upcoming bookstore gigs to introduce the historical context of his book. OK, I agreed without reading the book or knowing anything about it. Probably a bad idea, but luckily I got away with it because this is a very interesting read.

Winners tells the story of Shane McCarthy, a 30-something guy in San Francisco during the dot-com boom. He’s on the periphery of the boom through his wife Lou who is an up-and-coming start-up entrepreneur, but Martin smartly shows how her ambition is destroying their marriage. Shane cleans chimneys, having taken over his father’s business; he is a son of the Sunset district, a lapsed Catholic Irish, one of four brothers.

I won’t go on too long about what happens in this book, because I think you’ll probably want to read it. It’s a quick and breezy read, but a page-turner for long stretches as the city we know” and the recent mass delusion that gripped it” set the stage for an achingly familiar human tale. Basketball is a running component of the story, not spectator professional basketball (esp. around here!) but street basketball, a game that has gone on for many years at a specific outdoor court, and the characters that play the game and share larger or smaller bits of their lives.

We live in an enormously segregated society. Even San Francisco feels that way most of the time. In Winners that segregation is carefully exposed and the cultural chasm it causes is traversed in halting and contradictory ways. This is where the book shines most brightly for me. Its frank treatment of racism as a structural fact of San Franciscan life, juxtaposed to the gentrifying tsunami of the dot-com boom, shows that Martin is willing to touch on something a lot deeper than the usual self-flattering puffery that young white men tend to write.

Also, I played street basketball as a young adolescent in Oakland, so a lot of the banter and camaraderie he captures so well in Winners came back to me. I had completely overlooked, in my ongoing curiosity and interest in the demise of public space, the public basketball court. It’s a place where (mostly) men of different races and ages can still cross boundaries of class, housing, and occupation, to pursue equality and acceptance through the controlled intensity of a no-holds-barred basketball game.

Or maybe they just want to kick some ass! That simple macho goal, which holds almost no interest for me anymore, nevertheless becomes an honorable way to connect, a way to earn and show respect, and I had frankly forgotten that. It was true in my youth, too, especially in the tortured and violent world of middle school physical education. I suffered my share of robbery and assault, but I staved off a great deal more by being something of a jock, a decent basketball and baseball player, and someone who could physically dish it out on a football line too, when I had to. I don’t know how many people sized me up through sports and then left me alone after that. Had I been wimpier, I think I’d have been more of a mark to even more of my schoolmates.

Anyway, basketball serves as a public, social arena in Winners. There is almost no sports talk per se, just how different lives intersect through the game on a public court. And, too, how distant and alienated the players mostly remain from one another. The disappearance of a young black guy who’d been a regular player for five years drives the plot. The things Shane learns about the guy, his family, his city, his own life, all unfold in that zany, inexplicable bubble that gripped the part of SF that was getting all the official attention back in 1998-2000. As such, it’s already a really good historical novel, because one of the hardest things to do is convey the texture of life at any given time. Martin has woven a tale that captures amazingly well what it actually felt like to live here during that time from the point of view of a “native” San Franciscan.

P.S. I’ll be appearing with Eric Martin on March 10, 7-8 p.m. at The Booksmith on Haight Street, and March 24, 7 p.m. at Vesuvio’s in North Beach.

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