Discussing "The Agony Of Victory"

We love books. Books are fun. They're so full of booky goodness. And because we don't have time to read and write about every sports book, we've corralled three regular Deadspinners to continue the Deadspin Book Club, discussions of current sports books. (Previously, they did Running The Table.) Your panelists are Unsilent Majority, Signal to Noise and The Starter Wife. This month's book is The Agony of Victory: When Winning Isn't Enough, by Steve Friedman. Do enjoy.

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Friedman brings together essays written over the last 20 years into a fascinating anthology. The individual pieces concern sports as varied as bowling, cycling, basketball, boxing, and golf, but they are linked by a common theme: the pursuit of excellence as a path to self-destruction. For example, take Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree, a man so determined to excel that he built his own bike (out of washing-machine parts and other scrap metal) and pitted himself against the giants of the sport. He won, too, and kept winning until cycling's regulating body changed its rules to prevent him from competing; so he changed his technique, and they changed the rules again. Finally, after he started coughing up blood months after a race, his career came to a close. His story—and the book is full of stories just like his—perfectly illustrates the physical and psychological toll that the drive to win can take on a person. An apt counterpoint to the multitude of winning-is-everything books, this one says that winning is nice, but it isn't everything (and maybe, in some cases, it can be lethal). - David Pitt for Booklist

S2N - More like "the agony of reading this damn book."

UM - So yeah, I completely understand everything that these crazy fucking hikers, bikers and competitive masochists have gone through.

S2N - I understand it despite the author's regular attempts to obscure it through his own bad attempts at writing exercises. Usually, I do two reads of a book in order to make sure I'm not missing anything too crucial, but the second read through these stories was absolutely excruciating. Once I picked up the general gist of the stories and had to figure out how Friedman is trying to tell them, I had to force myself through it.

I really don't like his writing style; it managed to make characters like Pete Weber and Scott Williamson dull, and somehow managed to dilute Marshall Rogers' story, which is one of the saddest you could think of. In the hands of a better writer, it'd have more impact. No one would object to the general premise weaving through Friedman's essays: that the drive to achieve at high levels comes with a psychological cost, and we touched on this when we discussed the last book — how talent or drive like this is a trade-off bringing certain peccadilloes, vices, etc.

UM - The Marshall Rogers story was butchered. Given the subject-matter I assumed it would be one of the best stories in the book, but it was easily the most disappointing.

After a while all of the stories began to run together a bit. They certainly share similar themes, but after a while it just became repetitive and tedious. And the foreword made me want to cut myself.

TSW - Not only did I find his writing "exercises" a bit self-indulgent, by the end of either the fourth or fifth essay I started to feel like he was a bit condescending to his subjects. I found myself picking this book up, reading half a chapter, putting it away, starting another chapter later on, and then going back to finish the essay I was reading before. It simply was not engaging in anyway.

As far as too many similar themes and story threads, it is only because he centered on the sadder characters in niche sports. Three or four extreme hiker/runner stories? Two cyclists? Two bowlers? An astronaut? An NBA washout, which as UM already said, was a story barely allowed to evolve in his piece?

UM - The book totally lost me after the second bowler. By the time I got to the second hiker I was tempted to start skipping forward, but it was just more of the same.

TSW - Should we maybe just list each essay and give a few thoughts?

UM - Sure.

S2N - In Friedman's defense, he had this backlog of niche sport pieces because those were the publications he was writing for — Bicycling, Runner's World, Backpacker, Outside, etc.

Going Nowhere Fast : Graeme Obree, Cyclist

S2N - I liked Obree's story, and once I tried to zone out Friedman's voice about the whole chicken rogan josh and chicken korma thing (what the fuck did that have to do with anything, I ask you), it's compelling if you start writing the tale in your own head. Obree must be sitting back and laughing these days as he notes the state cycling is in, if he was knocking the dopers years ago.

TSW - Obree's story was an interesting example of an athlete believing he can reach the impossible, even if it costs them their health. Unfortunately, it also set the tone for the rest of the book: Athletes who spend their careers trying to outrace their childhood traumas.

UM - Ah, I'd forgotten about the Obree story. I came in knowing absolutely nothing about him and I did draw a good deal from Friedman's feature. Regardless, everybody knows that nothing beats a good chicken korma, that shit is like manna from Vishnu! Damn, now I want to go eat Indian food in Scotland. I bet the accents are high-larious.

Kingpin : Pete Weber, Bowler

S2N - I confess that I've watched a few PBA tourneys before when there was nothing else on, and Weber's flamboyant nature is compelling even though the game does nothing on TV.

TSW - Actually, this was a story I was more forgiving of once I read the final essay about Friedman and his father's golfing week. (More on this later.) And while Weber is self-destructive in different ways, I kept thinking of the expectations and legends of Bobby and Barry Bonds while reading this story. Just like Obree's story, much of the Weber piece came from interviews with his wife. Both women were rather protective of their husbands, which made me wonder how much Friedman left off the page.

"It's Gonna Suck To Be You" : The Men and Women of the Hardrock 100, Ultra-marathoners

S2N - I just wasn't particularly interested in this in any way; the masochism involved didn't do anything for me here.

TSW - Could have had more impact if instead of trying to profile several of the participants, he stuck with just one person, no matter if they failed or succeeded. I was interested in the piece just because I've done a lot of high-altitude hiking and I know how easy it is to suddenly lose your barrings if you overexert yourself, but if I didn't have have that experience to relate to, I wonder what you would get out of the piece other than "look at those crazy Colorado outdoors-y hippies trying to run the mountains."

Lost and Found : Gerry Lindgren, Runner

S2N - Whether through reluctance of his subject to explain himself, Lindgren's story felt incomplete, despite the attempts to link the childhood of Lindgren (parental abuse, etc.) with his desire to run away from everything in his life on the track — which eventually led him to running away from his family. Friedman never really was able to tie it all together, which might have something to do with his subject.

TSW - This was actually the first essay I read from the book on my first pass, and was the only essay that I wish the publisher would have noted when and were this piece was first published, because Lindgren has not been as reclusive as the article suggests in quite some time. (I believe his own ghostwritten book came out a few years ago.) Chapter Two in the "athletes running away from childhood trauma" theme.

UM - I agree on Lindgren. The background story was what I had hoped for, but he really got nothing out of that trip to Hawaii. Maybe he just went for the sake of a tax-deductible vacation. Perhaps that's a story that would be better captured on film.

The Unbearable Lightness of being Scott Williamson : Scott Williamson, Hiker - Backpacker Magazine

S2N - I hate this essay because of the second-person "you" and the drawn-out process of deciding where the essay ought to start. Yes, Williamson's story is interesting, but the writing style used for this piece just got in the way. It's as if he wrote it for a creative non-fiction class. He never really got into what drove Williamson to want to hike from Mexico to Canada and back, why he really wanted to spend seven months doing this. The only explanation I have is that his good friend would have wanted to.

TSW - I actually thought this is actually one of the strongest pieces in the collection, despite the back and forth on the second-person story telling. Maybe it was the idea of chucking everything to escape modern responsibilities or maybe it was the obligation to an accidental friend that Friedman connected with, but I felt as a reader, this was the most human of all the profiles.

UM - Scott Williamson story probably interested as much or more than any of the others, despite the author's off-putting writing device.

Falling Star : Marshall Rogers, Basketball Player

S2N - Marshall Rogers, again, is one of the saddest tales I've read, and yet it was diluted by useless italics (which encompassed quotes and details that could have been woven into the essay or ditched entirely). It's sad because it's a higher profile example of a few high school and college basketball players I know who don't know what to do with themselves when the dream is over. Friedman just made it seem so, well, pedestrian.

TSW - As we already discussed, there was nothing to be gained from Friedman's take on Rogers. His story is already one we are already familiar with and his gimmicky asides almost seemed to mock Rogers' mental illness.

Up From The Gutter: Rudy Kasimakis, Bowler

S2N - I yawned through a lot of this one, because after reading one book about a hustler last month, this was just boring. Friedman's bad at creating atmosphere; this could have been improved by spending more time describing the action in "action bowling." Without that, I'm not sure what makes Kasimakis interesting, if anything at all.

TSW - This one wore me out pretty quickly, but that might be because we had just finished the Kid Delicious story.

UM - After the story on PBW, the story on the hustling bowler seemed pretty inconsequential. With Weber we learned a fair amount about the person behind the persona (of course everything i knew about him before came goofy ESPN ads) along with the world of competitive bowling. Yet the story of Rudy the hustler read like a bland and rather superficial profile on somebody I don't care about.

Tough : Danelle Ballengee, Runner

S2N: This was one of the few that I thought Friedman acquitted himself well on. Having the perspective of the subject, what she thought about and what she did to try and avoid dying after falling off the cliff was fascinating — I imagined myself there with few problems, and getting the tales of her neighbor and the people who went searching for her made for an interesting read.

TSW - If I was the dog in Friedman's article, I would wonder why I didn't receive top credit along with my owner since my side of the story is given just as much time as Ballengee's.

The Tragedy : Marco Pantani, Cyclist

S2N - I cannot emphasize how much I disliked Friedman's interjections of his own history with drug abuse into the very sad story of Pantani, and the inability of his family, friends, or anyone else to help him after he fell so far from the heights of cycling. What the author went through wasn't needed for the conclusion — that no one was truly responsible for Pantani's death save the cyclist himself, dying because he was a drug addict. It interrupted the flow of the story and added nothing to it. We could have reached the conclusion that Pantani did himself in without it being spelled out for us.

TSW - It is the Hunter S. Thompson effect. And unless you are Hunter S. Thompson, I don't want to hear about your own drug use in an article.

UM - Especially if you're going to come off as such an ass. I basically stopped reading after the Marco Pantani story. His interjections were inappropriate and completely irrelevant to the story of the man's downfall.

Sixteen Minutes From Home : Willie McCool, Runner

S2N: I loved McCool's story, but I just don't know whether it actually fits into the theme behind the collection at all. I suspect the fact that Friedman has to even address that midway through in a sense — noting that McCool's life wasn't that simple with the abusive biological father. But I sense this is more of a new profile, or interesting appreciation, of a man who died in a tragedy seen around the world than someone who suffered or was tortured by his or her desire to beat back the despair through individual achievement.

Lost in America : Steve Vaught, Hiker

S2N - At about this point, I feel like I'm running into the same kind of story, or at least a script similar to others we've read before. The interesting twist is what happens to Vaught when his impulsive idea to lose weight becomes a mini-media phenomenon that, ironically, winds up being something that he cannot control — just like the fluctuations of his weight. Problem is, I'm reading the same kind of "filling the void" language that I've seen so much of previously, and it's losing its luster.

TSW - I remember all the hoopla around Vaught - documentaries were HOT HOT HOT at the time and everyone and their brother owned an SLR - and always felt that the poor man never stood a chance against the media onslaught that surrounded him. Friedman's take read like the footnote to the Oprah phenomenon.

A Moment of Silence : John Moylan, Runner

S2N - It's an interesting story, but I wound up feeling like I couldn't take away a whole lot from Moylan's survival story. Maybe it's because I couldn't fathom being in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the trauma it would cause, but when I read about him not being able to run for a while after the attacks, I didn't feel a whole lot for him.

TSW - There is something so numbing in a 9/11 story - to me at least - that they hardly register with my emotions any more. It sounds horrific to say, but it is like my soul only has capacity to grieve for and worry about the people directly in my life who were hurt by that day. Yes, it was sad he could not run. Yes, it was a symptom of something greater. I just could not connect with that fear from Friedman's story.

G-D in his corner : Dmitriy Salita, boxer - New York Magazine

S2N - My favorite of the book, actually (as much as "favorite" can be used, considering how tough it was to get through a lot of this.) He's limiting his career to be observant, obviously, not participating in the staple that is Friday night fights, and the careful walking of a line between the adherence to faith and career aspirations. I do think there's something to examine here that I wish Friedman might have — if participation in American sport lends itself to the sort of cultural assimilation that's described with prior Jewish boxers.

I'm actually eager to hear what you think of Salita's story, UM, since you're the one of us who knows boxing well.

UM - Somehow I hadn't realized that I'd already read Friedman's piece on Salita over a year ago when it was linked by my friend I-berg at No Mas . I remember enjoying the article that ran in New York Magazine as much or more than most of the other Salita profiles I'd come across, but it's woefully out of place in this collection. It just doesn't fit in with the stories of people with unclear or abstract motivations to push themselves further. Salita is a boxer who boxes because it's his career of choice.

S2N - Do you think Friedman's trying to tie in Salita's desire to box more with his religious observance than is warranted?

UM - No, not necessarily, I just felt like the bulk of the other stories deal with people who are driven by some invisible compulsion. Salita's story isn't like that, he's a Jew and a boxer but he's just a regular person who doesn't seem to suffer from the "Agony of Defeat" and not just because he's undefeated.

Driving Lessons : Barry Friedman, Golfer

S2N - I wish he'd left this one out, not only because I think the last line of Salita's story was a great way to end, but because it just seemed like so much navel-gazing on the author's part — trying to figure out what drove his father so much, and attracted him to golf to fill his time. I can see where it fits in the concept of the collection, but whether it was really necessary to include to prove that point, I don't know.

TSW - Actually, for me this was the piece that pulled the whole book together. It was easy to see Friedman's road heading to confrontation with his own childhood and his own father by reading the essays in order. The collision between the obsessive athletes (albeit amateur in this case) and their families needed to be told from the spectator's (innocent bystander's? victim's?) side to make the book complete.

Conclusion

UM - I'm not even sure how much more there is to say. I enjoyed a few of the stories which I guess makes reading the book a worthwhile enterprise, but the rest was either uninteresting or downright banal.

TSW - Maybe it was reading two books in row for the Deadspin Book Club that were less than inspiring that has us so down. Maybe it was the lack of context from original dates and publications. I enjoyed the Scott Williamson story (and the afterward that tied together his love life) despite itself and wished Friedman could have been as hUMane in the rest of his essays.

S2N - I would recommend skipping this; there's not a high enough percentage of hits to offset the misses here for me.