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Sports writing is perhaps one of the most challenging forms of writing and, as Alan Chin deftly demonstrates in his most recent novel, Match Maker, (Dreamspinner Press), a high art when done right.
Tennis pro Daniel Bottega teaches county club tennis to San Francisco socialites while his lover, former rising tennis star Jared Stoderling, takes up drinking after being forced out of the pro circuit by homophobia.
Then comes young Chinese tennis prodigy Connor Lin, along with his dominating father, Roy, and his doting “best friend,” Spencer. Roy has badgered Connor as far as he can and looks to Daniel to develop his son into the next Michael Chang. When Daniel pairs Jared as a practice partner with Conner, Jared’s dreams of being a tennis champion are revived.
Chin nicely revives the sports cliché of the ex-champ’s big comeback by placing it within the context of professional sports homophobia—that isn’t to say the novel isn’t without it’s shortcomings.
Chin knows his game and he writes about it with clarity and an excitement that engages even the reader whose attention to the game only extends as far as Rafael Nadal’s thighs: “Ever since my first glimpse of his toned body squeezed into those virginal white shorts, I have worshiped at the altar of the male tennis player.”
Match Maker features sports writing at its best and those hard won game points are about as breathtaking as watching the real game. The agony of a homophobic umpire’s bad line call is equally heartbreaking.
However, Chin’s portrayal of the business of tennis seems less credible. The homophobia of Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) officials and some heterosexual players in Chin’s novel is so unmasked as to seem far-fetched. The real but almost unstated homophobia of the real game surely is more insidious, but Chin turns Karl Diefenbach, president of the ATP, into a comic arch-villain.
It results in a very funny scene at a luncheon, where Diefenbach’s hypocrisy and double-dealing are served up heavier than the beef Wellington, but would a real ATP official play his homophobia so baldly?
Still, it is juicy fun and when combined with Connor’s and Jared’s thrilling action on the court and Daniel and Jared’s even more thrilling action in bed, it is even juicier.
Daniel is a mix of Shoshone, Spanish and Cantonese, “with hairless skin the color of sun-baked iodine.” Jared has “fawn-colored hair and a Milky Way of freckles scattered across his face” and “pale-green eyes.” Their destined roles: “Me the lover, he the loved.”
That is, until the action grinds to a halt with a Front Runner-type incident that sidelines Daniel and separates him for seemingly interminable pages from Jared and the main action of the book on the court.
A gay “front runner” who is physically attacked by a rabid homophobe has unfortunately become such a tired gay sports cliché that Peter Lefcourt effectively spoofed it in his very funny, The Dreyfus Affair.
In any case, Chin manages to make lemonade out of a lemon and in the end turns the cliché towards a satisfying enough happily ever after.
Chin also loses balance in handling some of the novel’s secondary characters. For example, Connor’s girlfriend Shar would almost better be written as a cliché, since her only purpose seems to be to credibly establish Connor’s heterosexuality, but instead her story line sometimes threatens to sideline the novel’s real romantic interest between Daniel and Jared.
Another unsettling moment comes on the court when Jared grand slams a net ball into his homophobic opponent’s face. Tearing off the face of even the most obnoxious homophobe made me lose my sympathy for the novel’s protagonist.
It seems that Chin’s balance is beautifully restored with his capture of the Lin family’s celebration, which I enjoyed reading almost as much as I do eating good Chinese food. But I worried again about cliché, for example, the use of food as a cultural connection, but here perhaps especially I should bow to Chin’s first-hand knowledge of his topic. Still, I wonder how many Chinese American families really play mahjong at family get-togethers?
Chin houses Daniel, a struggling tennis pro, and Jared, a drunk, out-of-work ex-champ, in a Russian Hill apartment with views—as if! Still, the romance of the setting perhaps justifies the stretch of our belief; it is a fabulous apartment.
Later, while on tour, our tennis team retires to an aging villa on the Spanish Mediterranean for some much needed R&R, and here the romantic fantasy is completely justified and highly satisfying: “The wind that brought the Moors to these shores also brought the smell of the desert across the water from Africa.”
Minor fouls didn’t distract me from Chin’s overall mastery. I especially appreciate the subtle back and forth volley between Daniel and Connor, gay and straight. At the beginning of the book, Daniel sees “my own reflection on the glass superimposed on Connor’s lolling figure, and a shiver raced up my spine.” This mirror motif is effectively and movingly maintained throughout the novel.
By Alan Chin
Paperback, 9781615815876, 342pp.