Thursday 30 March 2017

O'Connor tale gets right to heart of our game

Searing honesty in story of a turbulent club year makes book a compelling read, writes John O'Brien

THIS year, according to the great and good of the William Hill judging panel, the Irish Sports Book of the Year was The Club by Christy O'Connor (Penguin Ireland, €19.80).

And, of course, they were right. The GAA was well represented on the longlist: 11 of the 23 titles dealt, in some form or other, with the national past-time. But none strike at the core of the games or why they matter in the way The Club manages. That isn't meant as a slight, more a measure of the power and resonance of O'Connor's story.

The choice was as brave as it was welcome. Since its inception in 2006, the Sports Book of the Year award has tended to discriminate in favour of the star whose name alone fights half the promotional battle. That's not essentially a bad thing when you consider it has given us the gripping accounts of Paul McGrath and Donal óg Cusack, yet recognition for The Club seems fitting and important, a timely endorsement of the art of straightforward story-telling when it falls into the right hands.

The Club provides an account of a turbulent year in the life of O'Connor's club, Doora Barefield, but we instantly realise it could be any club, any town. It is so open and searingly honest that, at times, the reader feels like a voyeur, intruding into people's lives and their innermost thoughts. That lends the story its edge and its raw, feral power. O'Connor approaches the narrative in the same, full-blooded way he and his colleagues approach the game and, unlike their on-field progress, the result is never in doubt.

The Club works because in its reaffirmation of life in the face of heartbreak and tragedy, it says something interesting and vital about the world and our place in it. Too many GAA books fail by trying to impose the greatness of the games upon us, and not ultimately proving their worth. The Club evokes it on every page without really having to try. That is its joy and its ultimate triumph.

The most compelling sports books distinguish themselves by their importance. Browse the ever-expanding shelves in any reputable book store, and the same questions will repeatedly arise. Did that story really need to be written? Does it add any intrinsic value to our lives? In the case of Ruby: The Autobiography (Orion Books), the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

Towards the end of an engaging trawl through his 30 or so years of life, Ruby Walsh informs us he is relating his story with his left arm in a sling. "As you pick it up," he muses, "it could well be my right." The quip is closer to the mark than he imagined. Yet, if there is a consolation for the injuries that have haunted him at regular intervals, it is that we get to enjoy Walsh the analyst on the box, and the wit and intelligence he displays on air is evident throughout his engaging autobiography.

Jockeys, as memoir writers, can be hit-and-miss. The existing code of honour means they are often reluctant to delve too deeply into what takes place behind the closed door of the weighing room, but Walsh offers much to compensate. The chapter on Willie Mullins is the most incisive account yet of the elusive brilliance the Carlow-based trainer brings to his craft and the beauty of Walsh himself is not just that he has ascended to the pinnacle of his sport, but that he has the mind to explain how.

On the theme of racing, specifically gambling, few books have come as close to the bone as Beth Raymer's Lay The Favourite: A Memoir of Gambling (Spiegel & Grau). Too many gambling books go down the road of poorly conceived gimmickry -- as in author tries to win £1m in six months -- or peacock-strutting accounts of how the "big rollers" came good. Lay The Favourite, mercifully, doesn't take either of those paths.

Pitching up in Las Vegas after college and hooking up with eccentric full-time gambler, Dink Heimowitz, Raymer's narrative includes all the shadowy, larger-than-life figures you would expect to encounter, yet the story never follows the easy or expected path. At times, the twists seem stretched and implausible, but Raymer writes too well and too authoritatively not to trust the authenticity of her account.

Essentially, Raymer is a gambler in life rather than the horses while Dink, she discovers, has found a way to make the game pay but, in the greater quest for fulfilment, he is less successful. And it is there that the book's power resides: in the hard collision between the adrenalin rush for adventure and the conflicting desire for inner peace. Raymer seems to find it in the end, but it is an unconvincing resolution.

Ultimately, Lay The Favourite offers no easy resolutions. It is messy and uncircled, because that's the way gambling is. And, maybe unwittingly, she has brilliantly captured that endless truth.

Sunday Independent

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