Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review of Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man

Like all good memoirs, Jay Atkinson's Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man is about more than just what it's about. The center of gravity is rugby, but the memoir is about building an identity, discovering one's self in the course of one's life, and using that self as a guide through whatever else existence provides. For Atkinson, the culture of rugby provided a kind of stability that allowed him to cope with the emotional challenges of his life, while struggling through shitty jobs to be a writer.

As a rugby-player myself, I can say that Atkinson perfectly captures the culture of the sport. Camaraderie. Barely restrained recklessness. Penchant for mischief. Roll with the punches attitude. Drinking. Singing. Nicknames. (I was “The Prophet” if anyone is curious.) Through his anecdotes and reflections, most readers will get a good sense of what makes rugby rugby and why ruggers are so willing to constantly risk bodily harm in their sport.. Of course, this is a memoir, not an expose, so readers looking for a wealth of salacious details and vulgar lyrics will be slightly disappointed. There is debauchery, but only so much as can be experienced by a rugby player with a head on his shoulders.

Atkinson describes the games as well as he describes the parties. In some ways, rugby is a complex bundle of confusing contradictions. Despite being played on a roughly soccer-sized field, the bulk of the work takes place in the ugly, messy, brutal, virtually enclosed, chaotic-while-rigorously-policed, ruck as the teams vie for position and control of the ball after a player has been tackled. But then all of that work often culminates in moments of brilliant athletic grace; long passes across the field, perfect drop kicks through the goal posts, and fast runners balletting through the back line. As in all sports, there are specialized roles for the different positions, but all ruggers need a broad base of general skill; tackling, passing, catching, to be able to compete. And there's the scrum, a term that has taken on an opposite meaning in general use from what it means in rugby. The scrum might be the most highly orchestrated, technical, and delicate procedure in all of rugby as it involves getting eight players per team, in different positions, with different body types, and different skill sets and strengths to work in perfect unison. I don't know if there's anything more orderly in all team sport.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man is also a writing memoir. It was Atkinson's hopes for a writing career that brought him to Florida where his rugby career began in earnest, and it was there that he met the late great Harry Crews. If there are two muses in this book, rugby is one, and the hard drinking, hard teaching, hard writing is the other. And Atkinson stuck with writing just as he stuck with rugby, authoring Caveman Politics, Ice Time, Legends of Winter Hill and more.

Which made me surprised there aren't more rugger-writers in the world. What's the difference between a frat that kicks a keg on Friday night and a rugby team that kicks a keg on Friday night? Saturday morning. Who knows what the frat is doing, but I doubt it's walking step by step across a field to make sure it's clear of rocks, setting up goal posts, and painting lines, before playing perhaps the most physically demanding team sport in the world. (Water polo might have it beat, but not by much.) The difference is the work. Whatever else happens, rugby players are defined by the work of rugby. Same thing with writing. The difference between a writer who goes on a Friday night tear, and everybody else who goes on a Friday night tear, is the desk on Saturday morning. No matter what else happens in their lives, writers do the work of writing.

I think that is one of things that makes rugby so important to the people who play it. Sure there's the actual athletic action, there are the parties, there is the camaraderie, there is the ability of sport to unify disparate individuals into a team, but there is also a reason to drag your hung over ass out of bed on Saturday morning and do something. I think we live better, happier lives when he have that reason.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man will be most satisfying to people familiar with rugby, whether it's people who've just started watching the 7's version of the game on television, or players who know the tune of “I Used To Work in Chicago,” (You gotta wonder why that lady kept going back, she never got anything she asked for.) but general sports fans will enjoy this insightful look into what is still a fairly exotic sport in America. And since Atkinson never played professionally, he writes from the perspective of the life-long amateur, a perspective most of us can relate to.

Finally, since he is a writer there's a depth of experience and sincerity in the book that just cannot be created by ghost-written celebrity memoirs. You can feel that he didn't write this because he saw a publicity opportunity, but because this was his life and writers are compelled, for reasons often least understood by the writers themselves, to turn their lives into text.

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