Scott Tinley, a two-time Ironman World Champion, is a professor teaching sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. He is the author of several books. His most recent work is Racing the Sunset.
It might've been Gore Vidal who said he wouldn't review books that weren't read by their authors. As I recall, and don't hold me to this, Vidal was responding to Lee Iacocca's tell-all autobiography where nothing much is really told; where, in the increasingly manufactured theatricality that now permeates all areas of our world, the consumer craves authenticity, even if they can barely recognize it. In a society of pseudo-events, books by athletes, entertainers and the generic self-anointed--celebritized for their celebrity-ness, famous for being famous--generally read like cursory, warmed-over coffee proffered to an uninvited acquaintance.
We know that the subject instructs an assistant to hire a person who has an uncle who can collate the files in his bottom drawer. We know that someone else made the words, another filtered them and yet they are generally less harmful than, say, purple Kool Aid. And we are drawn to drink nonetheless.
It's easy to become suspect of famous people's pens. It's not quite as simple as hiring an ideological mirror with a degree in journalism and a well-placed editor-friend. But it's close. When Sara Palin attempts something cute and sound bite-ish in well, more likely it's her saintly ghost, Lynn Vincent from the Christian news magazine, WORLD, speaking in concert tongues.
Tennis great, Andre Agassi has taken a different approach to the great challenge of telling one's life but telling it well. He must've realized that the business of writing, like the business of tennis, is not an individual event. To do either well, you realize your solo-ness, your faults and then surround yourself with more than yourself. Enablers are needed, people who know more about the craft of writing than you but perhaps share your ideological bents, if not your specific history.
Andre Agassi's recent book Open: An Autobiography (Random House/Knopf 2009) is perhaps, the first title in the diluted genre since Bob Dylan's Chronicles to not only reflect the title in truth but do what a worthy auto-bio is supposed to do-let you crawl around in the head of someone else but all the while wonder why you're not examining you own. But where Dylan claimed that when he was writing his memoir he didn't feel altogether alive, one gets the sense that Agassi comes to a higher state of being while stitching together the patches of his past.
As much press as has been given to Agassi's willingness to hold nothing back, Open is not a typical cut-a-vein-and-bleed-on-the-page book. That's been done with lesser success. It's much different than say, McEnroe's 2002, Serious where the second word of the book is "hate." What allows Open to breath and then drives it toward literary success is the structure of the text, the crisp, angular phrasing, the altered pacing of the narrative, the careful randomness of word choice. In Serious we get to see McEnroe though McEnroe's eyes. In Open we feel Agassi through Agassi's feelings.
The second word in Open is "open," the fourth word is "eyes," of which Agassi's command both the cover image and extends throughout the central theme-attempting to see things as they truly are, not as someone else looks and projects upon them you.
While the discerning reader might scour the jacket in search of additional bylines and "with the help of" admissions before jumping in, Agassi thankfully saves this for the end-placed Acknowledgments. It is here where he gives ample credit to J.R. Moehringer. To wit-"This book would not exist without my friend." And though any reader of Moehringer's own work (The Tender Bar, 2006) will immediately see his pulsing and pervasive present tense, the tersely clipped syntax and subtly inserted streams of consciousness that are a sign of both his writerly expansion and restraint, by the time the reader realizes that phrases like "in the service of alliteration" just might've been suggested to Agassi by someone other than one of his on-court coaches, it doesn't matter. Agassi has earned our respect as a person, a contributing author and a regular sportsman who courageously questions the image-making machine that has sent others to the la-la land of live-after-sport.
By the time we get to the credits, Agassi and Co. have shown us why Plato feared the power of entertainment, why it took his life near the end of his tennis for Agassi to realize that he was chained to the flickering shadows of those who projected their image on the wall. And in his emerging empathy, he was helpless to deny their self-pity which was his own self-vacuity.
Agassi appears brutally open not because he is trusting enough of his intricate memory or the bank of hired fact checkers and neutral researchers but because he writes as suspicious of the selective narcissism found in other jock-tells-all texts. He's likely read fellow tennis prodigy, Tracy Austin's 1994 Beyond Center Court: My Story and perhaps feels like it sounds-her story through the word processer of collaborating journalist, Christine Brennan. Agassi knows all too well the power, the pain and the incontrollable result of choosing representatives. Certainly the reader benefits from this team he assembled to disassemble his past.
Maybe it's easy to become engaged in the openness of Open because it's not about becoming a tennis prodigy but about the prodigious task of unbecoming one. How does a tennis player create a non-sequitur creative product of such quality as Open? Is it his passion for the job at hand? His willingness to engage in the early tedium of separating fond remembrance from power-of-the-pen score eveners? Is it the ability to sleuth sweet nostalgia but then pepper with just enough salt and lime to keep those pages turning? What the reader wants is interfaces of an examined life. Agassi's life appears as a series of Venn diagrams, the middle grey sometimes haunting and sometimes joyful. But always telling.
Before there was Moehringer and Co. to mine his memory there was his suprema confidente, Gil Reyes, his anti-advisor, Bollettieri, his misguided marriage to Brookes Shield, strong-willed coaches and childhood pals and devoted siblings and a host of complicating figures who figure larger-than-life in a life desiring only the simplest of pleasures. And always, always there is his father in the background: harder Andre, faster Andre, bigger Andre, now Andre, not now, Andre.
If there is something comfortably familiar about Open it's the ubiquitous a father, a son, and a sport concept. But here it is so uniquely spun as to seem only vaguely resonant and very fresh. Fresh as a wound that doesn't cause pain.
Agassi looks for fathers in the most unlikely (and sometimes maladjusted) of places. It might be argued that everyone from his brother to Brooke to crystal meth to the ball machine are figurative stand-ins for what his father couldn't give, not because he didn't want to but, as the reader and Agassi come to know at approximately the same time, Mike Agassi, the boot-strapped Iranian welter weight boxing immigrant, simply doesn't have it to give.
Where Open ultimately gains the traction that grounds and grafts it to something immutable is when Agassi discovers, like Dorothy and Ahab, that what he has been running towards has always been right there, behind his heart. Here is where no amount of transcription, re-wording or umpteenth draft could've fixed in an unfixable narrative, another athlete gone feral in search of his truer self. Here is where the man-child leaves the page and the story all together and touches the Philosophers' Stone that he has unknowingly sought. The reader sees and feels the epiphany that is unfolding as Agassi recants and rehashes all that made, unmade and remade him. When Agassi describes what it feels like to ease his confidant Gil's daughter's pain with a pool pillow he sounds like Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning:
"In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment its finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice."
In Open , there isn't just that moment but a series of fits and start, of palpable, quandary-like movements toward something that isn't so much as joy and pleasure as it is a lack of suffering.
Something with meaning.
If there are subjections of melodrama they are made palatable by the undercurrent of self-effacement--if Agassi is hard on a few others (Connors, Sampras, Bolleteri et al.) it never sounds accusatory because he takes ownership in the end result, usually bad judgment on his part.
I find myself nodding in agreement as I re-read parts of the text. Not because I too had been a professional athlete suffering from issues of identity or because I came to realize, as did Agassi on the bottom of page 374 that "No. Hell no. It will never be over." But perhaps I connect with Open for what it said without really saying.
I think about Jose Ortega y Gasset suggesting in his Revolt of the Masses that "the truth is life on the face of it is a chaos in which one finds oneself lost…and so (the athlete?) attempts to conceal it by drawing a curtain of fantasy over it, behind which he can make believe that everything is clear "(my parentheses).
The truth of most sport autobiographies is that, as David Foster Wallace wrote about Austin's book "it could have been about the seductive immortality of competitive success." But they aren't and as further as we become confused in the ever-evolving sports-hero/role model paradigm, the more of an unlikely, undiagnosed victim the professional athlete becomes. Hard as it is to feel sorry for the poor, dream-living multi-millionaires, that is precisely where Agassi helps to stop the devolution of athlete heroes. Don't project your sordid self-pity onto me, he seems to be suggesting, I have enough to go around and I, for one, am taking responsibility for it.
The book, and the man, are successful in life after sport more for their parlance than their parry. Agassi could've crucified Canon for its hyperbolic image-construction but he doesn't. Lots of people could've died on the Open cross.
I want to call Andre and remind him of that which he has reminded me: regardless of your socialization, your class, your skill or the number of adult cars you win for playing children's games; regardless of your gender, race, folic fruitfulness or people in your posse; regardless of the length of your career, number of championships, spouses, homes and heart throbs; regardless of how many love you, hate you or are altered by your own metamorphosis; regardless of whether you can write in the service of alliteration or are written off as athletically-illiterate, as a professional athlete you will always and already live outside something called normalcy. No amount of training, soul-baring or minivan-driving will ever return you below the Rubicon you have willingly crossed. Whether it is pseudo, anti or honest, to millions you are a hero. You want to write a good auto-bio, recall the best and worst of books and yes, the best and worst of heroes, the ones that did more good for the havoc they wreaked than the sales they achieved. Recall Jim Bouton's Ball Four and its affect on journalistic integrity, Arthur Ashe's Days of Grace and how it addressed racism in sport. And recall that one of your most cutting critics, Martina Navratilova, asked for compassion and political asylum from the U.S. in 1975 and for understanding of her alternative sexual preferences even while admonishing you for a temporary preference for recreational drug use in your search for more than compassion-the willingness to accept the man in the mirror so that he too could return more than serves. Remember that genius doesn't necessarily skip a generation and even heroes reap what they sow.
And remember William James' insistence that "mankind's common instinct for reality…has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism," a place where everyone knew your name.
I want to tell Andre Agassi he has shown that he remembers nearly everything. And more importantly, he hasn't forgotten what counts: to be a role model, a son, a husband, a father or a friend…first you have to be your own hero.
What Agassi has shown us is that the beauty of hitting bottom is that there is something to push off. And athletes…they ain't like the rest. Never were. So get over it. Be a god.
But be a damn good one.
By Scott Tinley:
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