The rise, fall and reconstruction of Jaxie Skinner. This is a novel about tennis and about life in rural northern Georgia. That puts the story directly in the wheelhouse of this author. Starnes is an avid tennis fan, author of the Topspin Blog and not a bad player himself. And he grew up in small-town Georgia.
I’ve never been to the kind of elite junior or “Futures” tournament described by Starnes as the place where Jaxie makes his move. If I did I would expect to find kids that came from all over the world to be shaped into the same mold by the elite Florida tennis academies. So while this is only fiction it is nice to think that a young guy from the sticks who learned to play in his backyard can put away some of these clones. I’m also pretty sure that an academy kid doesn’t get experiences like driving to the Orange Bowl in the back seat of his father’s Lincoln while his buddy tells him stories of hooking up with the stripper who danced with a snake. And Bollettieri’s boys probably don’t spend the night before a big match holed up with their old man in a Quality Inn room while he gets so shit-faced that he can’t make the match the next day.
The title Red Dirt comes from the surface of the court that Jaxie’s father built for him in their yard. Inexplicably he never paves the court even though he makes a living as a road paver. This is a book that combines fact and fiction. Jaxie achieves success at the French Open both on the court and in the bed of the 16-year old Russian phenom in the women’s draw. That’s fiction. When the phenom proves to be not so phenomenal going up against Steffi Graff, that’s fact. Who knows how many times Steffi ended a young prodigy’s dream run?
There’s lots of tennis lore. One of my favorites is the story of Vitas Gerulaitis, who after losing to Jimmy Connors 16 times, wins once and proudly announces that “nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”
As you might expect the pro tennis players’ clubhouse is not portrayed as housing the friendliest group of guys you’ll ever meet. And there is a hint of HGH about. Starnes recreates the atmosphere of Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, not as it looks to the Federers and Nadals of the world, but rather as it is seen through the eyes of the qualifiers, the last guys invited to the party.
As in his earlier novels, Calling and Fall Line, Starnes’ storytelling can make you feel like you’re sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch drinking a beer. But in Red Dirt the southern drawl that weaves its way into his writing off the court is at times replaced by the direct and concise style of a wire service sportswriter when the action is on the court. You don’t have to be a tennis lover or a Southerner to enjoy this book. I can vouch for that.
(To see my reviews of Starnes’ earlier novels, click here.)