Friday, October 12, 2012

The DAMNED UTD is One of the Best Books I've Ever Read

I read a lot of books, usually young adult fiction because it gives me the highest percentage of reader satisfaction. Too many times when I read "grown up" books, I end up feeling frustrated with my experience due to any number of factors: slow pacing, unexpected explicitness, etc. (I'm a PG-13 kind of girl and get sad when things sneak up on me.) With YA, I feel like I have a good handle on predicting what I'm going to get and knowing when I want to take a reading risk.

All that being said, in my new quest to learn about soccer, I took a chance on a grown up book: THE DAMNED UTD by David Peace. There were red flags everywhere that this was NOT going to be my thing (if you find a copy, open to any page at random and count the number of [bleeps] you find, I'd set the over/under at six; might make for a fun drinking game).

This book fascinated me on a few different levels. For one, I guess I'd call it historical fiction. It's a novel, but it's told through the half-crazed mind of a real-life soccer player turned coach. I have no idea how much of it's true and how much was contrived for dramatic purposes. I also have no idea how much of it I didn't understand because I'm still learning what soccer is. But the way the story was woven together was so compelling that I knocked it out during a sick day while lounging in a giant beanbag chair gulping down medicinal teas instead of napping.

What made THE DAMNED UTD such a page-turner was the complexity of its structure - it flicks back and forth in time and switches between first and second person without changing narrators. The 'present' is brought to you in the first person ravings of our coach as he starts his new job. The 'past' shoves you inside his brain/body/soul, using second person to explain how he became the insecure disaster that he is (and possibly asserting that you, fair reader, might have done the same). 'You' feel his career ending injury. 'You' feel his need to be loved and accepted. 'You' feel the hubris that pushes him to take the job coaching Leeds, his bitterest enemy, while the first person makes you wonder whether or not he's destroying the team on purpose.

The first person made me hate him. The second person made me love him. The tension between the two was stunning.

This story both delighted me as a reader (and made my eyes bleed a little), and it also challenged me as a writer. Could I put together a complicated framework like this? Would I ever, ever, ever be brazen enough to try writing in second person, let alone good enough to pull it off? This is not a short book, and Peace kept a level of half-crazed intensity throughout the whole thing. At one point, I asked myself aloud, "How many drafts did this take!?" And then I coughed and had some more tea. It's an excellent book to have with tea, even if our narrator is slogging back tumblers of juicier stuff, usually with a tobacco chaser.

My recommendation to any aspiring writer out there: See if your library has a copy of this book, or if they can at least locate a copy for you (I bought it for $9 on e-reader with no regrets). Even if you care nothing about soccer and are put off by harsh language (like me), pick it up and look through it enough to see the brilliance of how it's put together. I've not found another book quite like it, and the snug fit of the puzzle pieces was more than worth the risk for me. Just... don't say I didn't warn you about the language. If you imagine it in a polite English accent, it somehow makes it better.

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