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Playing Through

by Curtis Gillespie
321 pages,
ISBN: 0385658818


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Playing The Scottish Field
by Gordon Phinn

Wedding ancient eastern philosophies to modern western sports and hobbies has become something of a cottage industry in the last fifty years. From Herrige's Zen And The Art Of Archery to the Tao of Pooh, the wisdom of the orient has been relentlessly shoehorned into the laisser faire dogmas of packaging and profit.
Perhaps a little too much fretting over the possibility of a timid CanLit remake of Michael Murphy's epochal Golf In The Kingdom (1972) made me approach Mr. Gillespie's sports memoir with the kind of apprehension distilled from decades of such encounters. I needn't have worried: aside from one admittedly stupendous occurrence, the mystical bonding of man to the mechanics of his ritualised activity is conspicuous here only in its absence. In its place we are presented with the efforts of an aggressively average Edmonton family in finding its place in the quotidian routines of the small East Lothian community of Gullane, smack in the heartland of golfing's noble history.
As a non-golfing Glaswegian, I am ethically disabled from commenting on any boundary disputes arising from the last statement, but I will note that the memoir form has the reputation of allowing its essayists acres of leeway. Usually this comes to mean that any old bit of lint from the laundry pile can signify something if the author tries hard enough to trace its familial DNA. And Gillespie, after the relative rigours of the short stories collected in Progress Of An Object In Motion (1997), and the heart rending, real-life pathos of the developmentally handicapped, sympathetically profiled in Someone Like That (2000), doubtless realising the wide open playing field now spread languorously before him, quickly warms to his task of no-task, for virtually anything that momentarily catches his fancy gets bunged in with all the rest.
For the artist whose vision has matured to the genuinely all-embracing, such inclusiveness can be exhilirating, but for someone of Gillespie's rather tender sprouting, the effect is one of carefree and immoderate cobbling. In this oft pleasing but diffuse patchwork quilt of a book, his efforts meander tipsily from an Edmonton childhood through East Lothian golfing, the joys and pratfalls of parenting, that traditional terror and anxious consumption of haggis, the politics of academe and the fear of hard work, another round in the seemingly endless face-off between Scottish nationalism and Canadian deference (as if the two could be hermetically sealed and bottled as eternally unchanging qualities), to the love of David Hume and chicken vindaloo.
As the author has polished his earlier, rather typically earnest CanLit syntax into a more magazine-ready readability, any of these anecdotes annexed by serendipity might charm the socks off a browsing innocent, but ultimately they reveal a writer whose basic accomplishment is to work up from a mass of notes something much closer to a hash than a memoirýan enjoyable hash but a hash all the same.
During his odyssey around family and personal obsessions, Gillespie proves as charming a companion as his straight-from-central-casting retired Scots golfers. The drink, as they say, will do that to a fellow. One follows his circumambulating chatter as pretty butterflies through a maze, whose dartings and flutterings can by turns, enchant, mystify and frustrate, but which, in the end, have little meaning beyond that of registering some momentary beauty.
Perfect fodder for the writer at the top of his form, like say Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory, who can transcend convention by sheer verve and inventiveness, but in Playing Through all we have is a boisterous rookie whose mawkish hybrid of forms hopscotches about in the vain hope that making merry will disguise the failure to make whole.
Some of the text is spent sneaking backwards glances at the author's father, his life and untimely death, and the projection of his no-bullshit blue collar values onto the aging golfers Gillespie befriends. The author somehow convinces himself that this admirable exploration of the legacy of an ordinary soul, an honourable man and good citizen, is the beating heart of the book. Yet for this reader the enterprise reeked of hyper-sentimentality and hypocrisy. For despite the inclusion, ill-advised at best, of an anecdote concerning the poor man's almost apoplectic attacks of sneezing and snot dribbling, which is surely meant to reassure us of his manly clearsightedness, but only succeeds in showing the author's willingness to exploit, Gillespie oozes mush over the old manýthe kind of goo which clouds rather than clears vision. And the hypocrisy is a classic working-class type: while repeatedly claiming moral superiority for the kind of plain-spoken self-made man his father undoubtedly was, he never lets slip an opportunity to let you know just how wealthy and well connected his new clubhouse heavies are. The unfettered access to golfing heaven and its elitist history is never far from his pen. A good old-fashioned snob is Mr. Gillespie.
Having never so much as lifted a golf club in my life, I can easily forego the luxury of envy on that front. But as a born Scot who has no compelling need to prove his credentials, I can't help but notice Gillespie's recurring tendency, not uncommon in Scots' fanciers, to feel that repeated use of the expletives ya stupid bugger and ya daft shite will magically conjure up the very essence of the nation''s soul. (For that enchantment I would suggest David W. McFadden's An Innocent In Scotland). Sadly, for the long line of Celtic romanticisers which stretches back to Sir Walter Scott and beyond, such colloquial soundbytes merely serve to reinforce tawdry cultural stereotypes.
Perhaps for Gillespie such considerations are minor, market driven tics, barely worthy of comment, but as one who is inclined to agree with Martin Amis, that we are fighting a 'war against clichT', such effusions tend to feel like a bottom line betrayal of literary principles. Now that Gillespie feels that he has finally put the ghost of his dad to rest (as a man similarly stricken at a young age, I would hotly dispute such confidence in the matter), can we assume there will be no more doomed father substitutes in his fiction, several of which inhabit the stories of Progress Of An Object In Motion, and hope that his next project will combine his not inconsiderable stylistic talents with a singular vision and a worthy theme?
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