Paul Kimmage: Is Colm Cooper's autobiography worth your hard-earned coin?
Under cover in pursuit of insight and entertainment.
Part 1: To Be Read Before Purchase
There are a couple of things you need to know about this version of The Stand right away, even before you leave the book store. For that reason I hope I’ve caught you early — hopefully standing under the K section of new fiction, with your other purchases tucked under your arm and the book open in front of you. In other words, I hope I’ve caught you while your wallet is still safely in your pocket.
— Stephen King, The Stand
The Sports section at Hodges Figgis is the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel. It’s in the basement, obviously, and is accessed via an old wooden stairway with a creaky bottom step. There are no windows, naturally, and its stained dark carpet lends a slightly musty smell. And while the attendant, Ross, is no ‘Randall Flagg’ it would be easy to imagine one lurking behind the scratched black door — ‘Staff Only’ — in the corner.
Someone who watches!
The basement is almost empty when she comes down the stairs — 30-ish, fair-skinned, runners, jeans, backpack. She starts at American football and moves purposefully through the shelves past ‘Boxing’ and ‘Cycling’ and ‘Football’ to ‘Tennis’, ‘Triathlon’ and ‘Sports Psychology’ where a book on sports nutrition catches her eye.
She tucks it under her arm, flicks briefly through the pages of Accidental Ironman by Martyn Brunt and reaches for a copy of Chrissie Wellington’s To the Finish Line. Anna Kessel’s Eat, Sweat, Play is sitting on a table with some recommended reads. She peruses it briefly, puts it down and I gaze, open-mouthed, as she heads for the stairs. Four books considered, none purchased.
See? That’s how to do it!
But it’s not how I do it. I spent a small fortune on books last week: Munich, the new Robert Harris thriller; I Found My Tribe, a memoir by Ruth Fitzmaurice and three sports books — Centaur by Ami Rao, Boy Wonder by Dave Hannigan and The Ascent by Barry Ryan. It’s enough to sate my habit for a month and I should follow the woman up the stairs but the just-published Colm Cooper is beckoning from ‘Gaelic Games’.
Come on, sucker! Open your wallet boy!
There’s a gauge I use with a new book in my hands. I ignore the cover — a portrait of a curiously vacant Cooper — and the nonsense on the back:
Tomás Ó Sé: “No one that I’ve seen could lace his boots.”
Alan Brogan: “The Dubs couldn’t stop Colm Cooper . . . top class.”
Pat Spillane: “The greatest Gaelic footballer of all time.”
And go straight to the first page.
Surprise me, Colm. Get me on board.
Beginnings have always fascinated me — it’s a Stephen King thing. Consider the absolute genius of the opening paragraph in Misery:
yerrrnnn umber whunnnn
These sounds: even in the haze.”
Or the first line of It — the 1,166-page novel that captivated my son (whose normal range is 140 characters) for the summer:
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
Sports books are more restrictive and tend to follow familiar patterns. What do Andre Agassi, Tony Cascarino and Brian O’Driscoll have in common? Their stories all begin in bed. Paul McGrath, Pat Spillane and Paul O’Connell? They are playing memorable games. But the books that endure are those that surprise and push the boundaries.
Consider the opening lines of Out of Control, the Cathal McCarron story, and how easily his ghostwriter, Christy O’Connor, gets us on board:
“Ping. It was after 11pm when a tweet landed in my phone. I was lying in bed in a small apartment in south London. Ping. Ping. Any phone alerts dropping that late normally just melted into the background noise outside as I drifted off to sleep, but this time the regularity pricked my senses. Ping. Ping. Ping. I sat up in the bed. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. The Twitter feed was relentless, like a jammed doorbell that wouldn’t stop ringing.
“What the hell was going on? Had something happened at home? I glanced at the phone in trepidation. The first three or four tweets went over my head until I spotted one from Owen Mulligan. ‘Holy fuck, what am I seeing here, lad?’ said Mugsy. ‘What have you gone and done now?’
Compare the opening lines of two prize-winning writers at the top of their game:
Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air): “Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.
"I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.”
Thomas Hauser (Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times): “Each day at 5am, a forty-nine-year-old man rises from bed on a small farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Quietly, as mandated by the Qur’an, he washes himself with clear running water. Then he puts on clean clothes, faces Makkah with his hands at his sides, and says to himself, ‘I Intend to perform the morning prayer as ordered by Allah, the Lord of all the worlds.’ Outside, it is dark. The only sounds are the wind in winter and the blending of birds and insects when the weather is warm . . . The man in Muhammad Ali, the most recognizable person on earth.”
Consider how Ami Rao — a writer you’ve never heard of — compels you to buy a book (Centaur) you don’t want to read, about a jockey (Declan Murphy) you had forgotten about: “There is symphony in the movement of a horse. The gallop, for example, is a four-beat rhythm: hind leg, hind leg, fore leg, fore leg. You just have to listen for it, to hear it as I hear it, and you will realise how musical it is: how beautifully poetic.
“This is the gait of the racehorse; it strikes off with its non-leading hind leg, then the inside hind foot hits the ground before the outside fore, but just by a split second. The movement concludes with the striking off of the leading leg, followed by a moment of suspension when — in glorious majesty — all four hooves are off the ground. Even at 35 or 40 mph, when the animal appears to be flying, it follows this classic, controlled cadence. In truth, it is not flying at all; it is dancing.
“Hind leg, hind leg, fore leg, fore leg. I can hum it in my head.
“I have always followed this beat when I ride, moulding my body to the rhythm of my horse’s stride pattern. And in this way, we have understood each other, my horse and I, our bodies in perfect sync, the energy between us reverberating like the silent echoes of an unspoken voice. This is how I have always ridden. By an instinct, deep and wonderful.
“It never failed me. Until the day it did.”
Consider standing in Hodges Figgis with a just-printed copy of Gooch. Do you squeeze or take him home? Is he worth your hard-earned coin? And what of the raft of new books coming down the line:
Any Given Saturday — Shay Given
Jayo: My Autobiography — Jason Sherlock
Form: My Autobiography — Kieran Fallon
First Hand: My Life and Irish Football — Eoin Hand
The Choice — Philly McMahon
Is there a prize winner here? Will they stand the test of time?