Former Olympic swimmer Casey Legler’s Godspeed is an audacious attempt to stylistically venture off the beaten path of the traditional sports/addiction memoir. While not always successful in its aesthetic flourishes, the book does offer a bold and innovative glimpse into a fascinating mind and the surreal life of a prodigy athlete.

Six feet tall at age twelve, Casey Legler’s physique sets her up for success as a swimmer. Twelve is also when she starts drinking. The combination of hothousing and a self-destructive streak soon takes its toll. Her tailspin culminates in a disastrous Olympics performance and Christiane F.-style squalor, dropping out of college and dealing drugs before eventually going to rehab in the desert. At this point she is just 21.

The ingredients of the story are not unique to Legler–unhappy family, social isolation, the difficulties of coming-out, exploitative adults all too willing to turn a blind eye to their charge’s struggles. What is different, however, is the way these experiences are described.

In the author’s note, Legler tells us she has recently learned she has Asperger’s. Her realization that her brain is “not built like [other people’s],” as her lawyer puts it, offers a first hint that she brings a non-standard worldview to the table. Her insight into her own mind is fascinating: she describes how, as a little girl in Louisiana, she would hide in the closet and write “little notes and rules about how to go about being in the world;” newly arrived in France, she manages for quite some time to hide her lack of French by “flip[ping] through the Rolodex of images …in [her] brain, and writ[ing] out the answers by rote.” She quickly establishes that her brain is something of a cage–often cruel, placing her at a remove from others–while also being wide open, searingly alive: “I could see a flower petal breathing.”

Sometimes, however, her stream-of-consciousness lyricism distracts the reader’s attention from the overall narrative. In Godspeed’s best moments, there are echoes of fellow swimmer Lidia Yuknavitch–a reckless misfit with her mind on fire, plunging headfirst into danger and being unflinching in looking back on her fuckups. But there are times when Legner’s prose is hyper-poetical to the point of confusion. Take passages like “The hill behind [our house] would cool my heated insides and dry a god on my lungs […] In that wideness there, emptiness would heave cliffs from far away in my body and make it heavy.” The piling on of metaphors can feel relentless: “my insides would drop out from under me in a gasp chased by the neon television.”

Legler’s fascinating descriptions of her detachment from her own body lend an intriguing dimension to her ambivalence about her craft: “My body goes numb—it knows it can do this and I understand that it will. I’m suddenly sad for it, trapped in this place.” But in other moments, it can feel jarring, placing the reader at a remove from what’s going on.

Legler is a writer of obvious talent. There are images and turns of phrase that are truly lovely, and that remind us of her keen observational powers. Drunk teenagers loll like “larvae” on a bed; her hair “hangs wild down my back like white seaweed.” In particular, her descriptions of how swimming feels stand out among the best moments in the memoir: “I explode out in one long rise above the surface and my arm moves like a whale over its body for her first stroke. I have breached.”

At its best, Legler’s story and poetics can be powerful, and one wishes that more had been done to pare back some of the text’s excesses so that those parts of Godspeed might shine through.

 

Godspeed
By Casey Legler
Atria Books
Hardcover, 9781501135750, 163 pp.
July 2018


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