The Bash; Louisville; Saturday—the novel

It was impossible not to be blown away by the CitySquash’s 4th annual, gawking, gossiping and greening Bash in June in New York. It raised $350,000. It was historic to get Jahangir Khan and Mark Talbott on court together again, more than twenty years after their watershed encounters on the WPSA hardball tour. It was just a lot of people, seven hundred and fifty-eight officially. That was eight more than the fire code limits of the Racquet & Tennis Club. There were ten year-olds, kids from CitySquash and kids from Greenwich, all dressed up, and the swishy twenty-somethings who had not been born when Jake and Mark squared off at the 1984 Boston Open and a few of the older generations who were debating, as midnight rolled past, about whether to lurch on to the after party.

I left at a quarter to twelve, in time to swing my horse out of the Seagram building before it closed, and headed south and galloped into my house at quarter past three in the morning, still wired from such an amazing evening.

Louisville

“The home of fast horses, beautiful women, excellent bourbon and tired but eager squash players.” That was the mantra of Louisville squash in the 1960s.

Jim Martin just sent me a nicely-printed history of Louisville squash, published in December 2000. Squash came to Louisville in 1930. The Wynn-Stay built two courts, both narrower than regulation (squash tennis courts?), while the Pendennis Club allowed a member to convert one of their handball courts into a squash court. The Louisville district association was founded in 1959; it hosted the Tournament of Champions in 1961 (Al Chassard won it) and the North American Open in 1972 (Sharif); and the Louisville Boat Club opened its doubles court in 1992. The history lists the winners of the Kentucky state championship, which started in 1932 and wasn’t played again until 1960 (too much bourbon or too many beautiful women?).

Fun fact: Louisville mayor Harvey Sloane (1973-77, 82-86; he narrowly lost to our favorite Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, in a 1990 senatorial race) won the state title five times

In 1963 Louisville helped create the Joe Hahn Cup, an annual inter-city match between Cincinnati, Louisville and Indianapolis. It was just singles (with a B and C divisions added in the 1970s) until a doubles match was started in 1989. The 45th annual was played this past February. I talked to a friend who played in it and it was the usual fun. Cincinnati has dominated, winning the Hahn Cup more than the other two cities combined, but it doesn’t have the fast horses, now does it?

Saturday

Ian McEwan’s new novel, On Chesil Beach, was published a couple of weeks ago in New York, and so I thought it might be time to revisit his last novel, Saturday from 2005.

As literate squash players know, Saturday has a squash match. Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, plays a morning game with a colleague. McEwan evidently did a ton of research about neurosurgery, as he acknowledged at the end six surgeons for allowing him to watch them in action over two years.

But McEwan thanks no squash players. It can only be because he plays himself.

Perowne’s gear is typical: permanent sweat patches on the blue shorts; grey T-shirt; squash shoes which “have a sharp smell, blending the synthetic with the animal”—or is that just a smelly sneaker? He keeps his racquet in a closet in his laundry room.

His club is on Huntley Street in Camden, in a converted nurses’ home

He plays the same guy, Jay Strauss, an American in his forties (who probably grew up on hardball one assumes) each Saturday morning. A lot of guys do that, have the weekly or biweekly game with the same person, year after year, the endemic intimacy of squash heightened even further by the familiarity each has with the other, the groove shots, the rituals, the fear of losing, the hollowness of victory.

It is casual. They leave their wallets, keys, phones up front, near the tin—no lockers and locks. They chat between games. They don’t shower afterwards.

In the first game, Strauss goes up 6-0, Perowne reels off seven straight points, but falters and Strauss wins 9-7. Strauss takes the second game 9-3, though there was a bit of a tetchy moment with a let at 8-3. After a titanic opening rally in the third game, Perowne wins the third 9-0 and the fourth 9-7.

Before the fifth, Strauss says “no pasaran” under his breath, Spanish for they shall not pass, the 1936-39 siege of Madrid. Nice touch.

At 8-7, Perowne hits a cross-court drive for a winner; Strauss wants a stroke, and Perowne thinks there wasn’t even a let there. After a discussion fraught with anger, they replay the point. Perowne loses it and the next three points.

The writing is great. McEwan nails the psychology of squash. For instance, he describes how you can go into a game drained, lacking desire, but after one point, you suddenly want to win. And he has a true passage on the game as metaphor:

“Why has he volunteered for, even anticipated with pleasure, this humiliation, this torture? It’s at moments like these in a game that the essentials of his character are exposed: narrow, ineffectual, stupid—and morally so. The game becomes an extended metaphor of character defect. Every error he makes is so profoundly, so irritatingly typical of himself, instantly familiar, like a signature, like a tissue scar or some defomation in a private place. As intimate and self-evident as the feel of his tongue in his mouth.”

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