Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Athlete's Memoir David Foster Wallace Might Have Enjoyed

One of the most insightful things I've ever read about sports was written by someone who was never thought of as a "sports writer". It was tucked away behind wandering but focused first-person accounts of the Maine Lobster Festival and Adult Video News Awards, an in-depth look at conservative talk radio through host John Zeigler, a short essay about experiencing 9/11 from woman's living room in Bloomington, Illinois and six other works of varying lengths on a variety of other topics.

Like many pseudo-intellectual non-English majors, my first foray into the work of David Foster Wallace was through Consider the Lobster. Had it not been bundled with those nine other essays, I don't know if I ever would have discovered How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. The piece was originally published as a book review on August 30th, 1992 in the Philadelphia Inquirer (when I was 8 years old), so I certainly wasn't in position to catch it when it originally appeared in print. I'm not a huge tennis fan and Tracy Austin reached the apex of her game years before I was born so it wasn't the type of subject matter I was likely to seek out after the fact. But when I did stumble upon it 16 years after it was written, it still resonated.

So how did Tracy Austin break David Foster Wallace's heart and why did I find it so interesting?

Austin did her part failing miserably to deliver on the promises made by her autobiography Beyond Center Court: My Story. "The inspirational story of Tracy Austin's long struggle to find a life beyond championship tennis", a note by the publisher on the inside of the glossy cover flap claimed. Wallace was a big fan of Austin, and although he followed her meteoric rise through from child tennis prodigy to U.S. Open champion and was an admitted sucker for sports memoirs, he was left dumbfounded by the emptiness of her supposedly candid book. "The book is inanimate because it communicates no real feeling and so gives us no sense of a conscious person", Wallace explains.

The reason I was captivated by Wallace's reaction was that he not only exposed the comical superficiality of the writing by Austin and her co-author Christine Brennan (and there are few things I enjoy more than making fun of bad writing), but he also found much deeper and broadly applicable meaning through its vapidity.

After reciting some of the more obviously vacant quotes from the "as told to" autobiography, DFW offers a theory as to why this genre is so popular and alluring despite the fact that they are "almost uniformly poor as books":

[Note: In lieu of blockquotes, I've embedded clips from the audio version of the essay.
No text version exists online and it's a whole lot easier than transcribing them.]

Wallace then goes on to recount the reasons that Austin's life had an almost classically tragic story arc but note that almost none of what was truly fascinating about her career was ever adequately described in the book. Austin chose to craft her life story to fit the conventions of the stereotypical rise to glory/fall from grace fairy tale to such an extent that at times it ceased to be believable.

She never addresses the fact that her compulsive work ethic and tireless effort caused her body to slowly atrophy through injuries like hamstring and hip flexors pulls and tendinitis. Austin mentions that her career was finally undone when the car she was a passenger in was blindsided on the JFK parkway literally on the way to the US Open in 1989, but instead of explaining how agonizing or iniquitous it was for her freakish natural athletic ability to be effaced by a freak accident, simply says, "I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it."

In a final flourish, Wallace tries to explain why athletes can seemingly never describe what it's like to be a physical genius. He attempts to rectify how it is possible for one to excel against the highest level of competition under immense pressure but never sufficiently convey it to anyone else:

Wallace is essenitally referring to the psychological concept of flow, which explains that to be fully immersed in any sort of task - "in the zone", to invoke a trite cliche - necessitates a singular focus. And as he points out, it's not specific to Austin, but relevant for any athletic pursuit. I've heard that over-thinking is the greatest enemy of an athlete in competition by broadcasters and writers alike, but never deconstructed with such effortless eloquence.

The reason that I bring up a work that's so old it was published on a day when Sam Militello started for the Yankees, is because of the recent release of an autobiography by an different tennis player. This athlete, partially because of a domineering parental presence - just like Tracy Austin - turned pro before he was able to drive. He too ascended through the professional ranks with incredible speed en route to two US Open titles but hit a wall at an age when he should have been entering his prime.

However, for all the similarities between the backgrounds and careers of Andre Agassi and Tracy Austin, their books couldn't be any different. While Austin declares that her mother "did not force her into tennis" at age three (as if she could remember either way), Agassi admits that his father used chase him around the house with a racket to take any trophy that Agassi received for something less than winning (e.g. sportsmanship) and smash it to pieces. Both hustled adults in matches when they were only children, but only Agassi admits being complicit in the scheme. As opposed to Austin, who flatly denied knowledge of match tanking or drug usage despite both being rampant during her time as a top pro, Agassi candidly admits that he partook in both activities.

We can question the motivations of Agassi and even assume that the reason he was so frank in Open lies somewhere between the narcissistic desire to tell his story in the most public of forums and achieve the goal of selling as many books - and therefore making as much money - as possible. But those were the ostensible goals of Austin, too. The difference is that Agassi delivered on the promise of a tell-all memoir. He truly pulled back the curtain and told the audience things that they never would have known had he not chose to reveal them.

Unfortunately, if you are familiar with David Foster Wallace, you know that he'll never read Agassi's book because he took his own life a little over a year ago. He battled with depression for his entire adult life and, in the process of trying to ween himself of the anti-depressant that enabled him not just to function but to pen brilliant works like Infinite Jest, hanged himself in his California home while his wife was out running some errands.

The most probable reason Wallace read all of those sports memoirs and why he said - however playfully - that Tracy Austin "broke his heart" with hers, was that he deeply wanted to go inside of the mind of a great athlete. It showed up in some of his other work, particularly the profile of Roger Federer he wrote for the New York Times. One of the main story lines in Infinite Jest revolves around the tennis-playing Hal Incandenza and there was even a character reminiscent of a young Tracy Austin. Like many of us, Wallace was a good but not great athlete in his youth and I think he desperately wanted just once, for someone who ascended to the very top to reveal what it was - what powerful mental process - that made them so magnificent.

But as he came to realize in reading Beyond Center Court, that kind of athletic genius could never be revealed in a book. Those innate gifts can't be put into words. In Open, Agassi offers the opposite. Instead of trying to explain what made him so great, he exposes the interior struggles that made him human. That is something that has always been able to be conveyed by prose, but the desire to do so for someone who has achieved unquestioned success is rare indeed.


  1. Great stuff Jay. Those audio clips are outstanding! Love seeing some David Foster Wallace here.

    I have not read the Agassi book and probably won't in the near future, but I did watch his 60 Minutes segment and have read a number of excerpts and am shocked at the backlash and trashing he has received from current tennis pro's (Safin saying he should give back his titles/money, Navratilova comparing him to Clemens, and Federer and Nadal both coming out against the book). It seems to me that the guy was honest about his career, struggles with tennis/life/relationships as well as admitting to addictions. I find this type of candor from an athlete refreshing and not something that should be frowned upon by the tennis community.

  2. Thanks a lot, Cliff, glad you liked it.

    Agree completely. The Clemens comparison is laughable considering one athlete used performance enhancing drugs to prolong his career long after it should have ended and the other nearly had his career derailed by his use of recreational drugs.

    I can see the tennis community try to distance itself from a book that contains admissions of illegal behavior, but if anything, it reflects poorly on Agassi himself as opposed to the game.

  3. Great article. Apparently David Foster Wallace hated Andre Agassi with a passion so I'm not sure he'd have liked the book but I certainly did.