Book Review: Pick-Up Game: A Full Day of Full Court, edited by Marc Aronson and Charles R. Smith, Jr.

Somerville MA: Candlewick Press, 2011.

In his "Afterword," Aronson writes that "Charles and I created this book as a way to get some of the feeling of pick-up [basket ball] on the page," and do they ever!

As an intro to every individual story, Smith throws-in with a poem, setting up the piece to come, defining the path the story will take, much like at throw-in, the play's foretold. In his contribution, "Mira Mira," poet Willie Perdomo tells about Caesar, a PR baller whose Tío Charlie teaches the youngster "one thing: the game is lost before the first whistle gets blown." If this is true, and it is, then the game's also been won; and if there's a winner and a loser even before the first throw-in, the game's already been played, it's part of history, part of the collective memory: within time and without. A very Zen way of looking at the game, and at storytelling. Which is a cool way of thinking about writing, and supposed writer's-blocks: if the story's been told even before pencil's set to paper, then simply wait the block out because sure enough the story'll come, or it won't, because it's not a story told that works as a story. Think of how many manuscripts, complete and incomplete writers have filed away never to see the light of day with them; the writer knowing in his heart of hearts, like Tío Charlie says, that all those words organized into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into novels boil down to nothing but words strung together into nothing. The writer's task then is to not let the next empty page smell the fear of the nothing-but-words-strung-together of the worthless piece of writing that's come before. The writer plugs away.

The writer plugs away like Waco does throughout the stories in this anthology: In YA giant Walter Dean Myers' "Cage Run," Waco, a white but whiter than white cat steps onto the court and essentially beats Boo down first game, leaving Boo to wonder if the game's worth pursuing: he walks out of the Cage, the famed court on West 4th Street in NYC, dejected, "thinking about Waco's remark that for some guys in Harlem, basketball was their whole life. And about him wanting a piece of that action." This moment serves as Boo's dark night of the soul. He has looked utter defeat in the face, has felt its cold breath on the back of his neck: will he ever play again? That's the same question a writer asks himself upon finishing up a book, success or no: do I have it in me to plow through the next one? Is writing for him his "whole life," will he chase after that "piece of the action"?

This book works as a metaphor: this wonderful collection does the trick that Aronson and Smith set out to do, and then some. The stories herein not only give readers the feel of the "pick-up game on the page," but beyond that, the feel that writing is that dare put out by the as-yet put to paper story or poem. It's that same taunt that cousin Billy throws out at Cochise in Joseph Bruchac "Head Game": "Dare ya. Betcha won't." And wouldn't you know it, Cochise does it, takes up the challenge because "You ever do something that someone else wants you to do, even though you know that they're pushing your buttons?" But if the game's already been played, if it's already been won and lost before anyone's stepped foot on the court, it's already been written, then is it really someone else pushing your buttons? No way, that's just part of the way the story of writing the story unfolds. A particular. A detail, seemingly minor, but not. The problem for the character? Maybe. Maybe not. But something big, something major.

Aranson closes with the following advice to writers who pick up this book: "I hope some of you try your own pick-up games--choose a place, a time, set the rules of the game, and start to tell stories--just the way you do on the court."

Other writers in the anthology are

Bruce Brooks, Sharon G. Flake, Robert Burleigh, Rita Williams-Garcia, Adam Rapp, and Robert Lipsyte.

Well worth the read.

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