The Middle of the Sentence

Basketball as a metaphor and more.

The Pennsylvania Gazette
May/June 2002

John Wideman's Hoop Roots

John Wideman has been writing about his own and others' mortality for a long time, but nowhere more movingly than in this new book, a work that is ostensibly about basketball. Hoop Roots is Wideman's own pre-elegy.

In this beautifully disarranged portfolio of narratives about his various recent returns to the playground as an "old head"and a "usta-be,"he writes about being old in advance of really being old. On the court he has seen himself die already; in the new book he moves in a simultaneous or synchronic time, non-narratively back in time, to moments when he was already old and the young leggy players, the "newest, fastest ones,"had already superceded him. These youngbloods "didn't know you from before,"and they "grumbl[ed] when you couldn't keep up with the way they played the game."Wideman is dying out of his basketball life before he dies out of life entire--long before, we can hope. It gives him a social preview of the new era. Age is the hoop caste system, but hoop age is radically relative, pushing the end hard toward one end of the scale, "old"in hoop coming well before old arrives in life's other arenas. Thus hoop is a social test of our capacity for reinvention and improvisation. The politics of Hoop Roots is a "body politics,"an intramural struggle waged on courts of play, in "the no-man's land of innovation,"animated by the young legs and the "the rush of their skills"and made urgent by the respect the young selectively feel for their heady elders. It is a contest that is, alas, no contest, for "today's today"and "leg ball"("[s]ignifying you don't need a brain to play it"), which is an in-your-face form of forgetting, seems to win over remembering. The emotional message of this book is that remembering has always been the key to learning communally from past tragic mistakes.

In this mortal contest Wideman takes a position. By no means does he condemn the young ones (this is not a simple book). He aches for a passionate synthesis. In the struggle between, on one hand, no-brain leg ball and, on the other, the game he must now play ("taping up ankles, bracing knees, binding hamstrings, Ace bandages, spandex, Ben Gay, Advil, eye-glasses secured by Croakies"), language itself is on the side of the usta-be. Wise about this, Wideman accepts a broken writing. He creates a language more lovely than all the most lyric complete sentences he has written about basketball in earlier books. Returning now to the courts of his Homewood childhood, or lured onto a Greenwich Village playground during his courtship (as it were) of a new lover, Wideman finds himself "back in the middle of a sentence that hasn't ended."

In the time scheme of Hoop Roots the fragment is the truly human form. Once upon a time words had done the job. They had wholly worked to describe. But no longer, as the old head knows. Now language fills physical absences, stands in for the lack; from now on Wideman will write, in a sense, because he cannot play hoop. So the writing must be disrupted, unfinished, digressive, resisting endings, precisely like the disjunctive parts of this book. And since the book, as Wideman tells us, is ultimately about pleasure, we understand how pleasure comes more from digression than straight-ahead direction, more from words that don't precisely mean than from sentences that disclose the world clearly. Hoop Roots gives us a compelling theory of words, how they must work after the body and the community are analogously ravaged. Whereas once we felt words located the things they denote, connected solidly to the rock (hoop's slippery nickname for the ball), and whereas good words were satisfactions in themselves, now the present tense must somehow point to a time that is not just now. The present must be in the "middle of a sentence that hasn't ended."This is an experimental notion of time, what we might call a "middle time."In Wideman's new writing it is often closer in spirit and syntax to Gertrude Stein than to many another of his narrative and thematic predecessors. The healing response to the painfully gone past is not the immaturity of a simple present tense, where things stand plainly for themselves, where language tells you what things are. Rather, it is an improvised no-one-knows-where-it's-going immediacy, something made in the playing and while the writing is being written.

All this makes for superb improvisation. We see the rush of Wideman's skills in a book that has been written to lament the diminution of skills. When Hoop Roots is written in the present tense it is as complex and mature a version of writerly presence as I have read. "[H]oop is doing it,"he writes. "Participating in the action. Being there."And: "We are doing this together.""[B]ut the action is always gone.""Stories place you in the presence of something perhaps experienced before, but since not named, in a sense unrecognized, though mysteriously tangible like the painful throbbing an amputated limb leaves behind in the space it once occupied."These phrasings are about basketball, but they are also about the writing we are reading. In general they make a practice of writing that staves off dying, that restores presence in the face of tragic absence. Such an approach to language is also of course about improvisational African-American culture, the unreproducibility of modern jazz, a kind of expressiveness in which, as Wideman puts it, "[t]he present tense presides."You play once and it is just that once an articulate fragment, for then it can never quite be repeated or attached to the whole. It is, as William Carlos Williams M'06 Hon'52 put it in a relevant poem about modern culture, a "pure product of America go[ne] crazy."A good kind of crazy, although it inspires some fear from those who like stability. As basketball is a folk culture's "determination to generate its own terms,"so is this writing once Wideman discovers the pure pleasure in it. Just when and where the world is "on your case to shape up, line up, shut up,"he wants pleasure, "the freeing, outlaw pleasure of play in a society,"to help resist and ultimately reshape that world. Thus the unshapely book and the writing, sentence by sentence, that refuses to shape up into a body. Implicit is a formal or sculptural principle. If the surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti was explicitly an aesthetic model in Two Cities, Wideman's brilliant novel of 1998--there we read a series of letters written to Giacometti by one of the main characters--in Hoop Roots Wideman is even more committed to the idea of writing that "reliably supplies breaks"rather than creates wholes. "Fragments of performance suggestive of a forever unfinished whole, the perfect whole tantalizingly close to now and also forever receding."

Wideman has discovered the connection between the kind of language into which he has matured and the game that in his tragedy-filled life gave rise to his antipathy for total explanations of social ills and for commodifications of black culture. Having made this connection, he can write of basketball in a way that is one model for a self-governing society, the radical republic of hoop. "The game's pure because it's a product of the players' will and imagination,"a grammar invented there and then, a collaborative one-time-only art. In the modal republic of hoop the fast legs and old heads improvisationally create, adapt, and enforce the rules. "[P]layground hoop like all cultural practices at the margins engages in a constant struggle to reinvent itself."Hoop requires, he says, no outside enforcement--"no referee, coach, clock, scoreboard, rule book. Players call fouls, keep score, mediate disputes, police out-of-bounds, decide case by case."It is a model for true home rule, dependent upon the contest between no-brain and the brainy thoughtfulness that deeply knows the relation between language, culture, memory, and the mortality that (soon) awaits even today's young legs. For Wideman this bespeaks the richness rather than the bleakness of postindustrial urban fragmentation if it can be depicted in a style more like Giacometti's non-realist distortions and discontinuities and less like the do-good realism of social documentary. Hoop offers a non-narrative and undepictable free space in the middle of all this. "If urban blight indeed a movable famine,"Wideman writes in the book's finest fragment, "playground ball the city's movable feast."

The writing is a significant advance upon basketball as thematic background in books like Philadelphia Fire (1990) and Brothers and Keepers (1984). Hoop there moved plots forward; served as stagings of urban dissent; made the politically necessary although obvious point that African American youth would narrate its own triumphs as a warrior's alternative to the tradition of American stories; and of course wooed readers and critics with stunning depictive prose.

It is in the remarkable Two Cities that the "warrior spirit"of hoop began to compromise the future. There Wideman began to understand the anti-aesthetic of discontinuity as the alternative way of explaining how hoop could encourage rather than destroy love and community. In that novel the view that "All you need's that warrior spirit to keep the old arms and legs moving"is called into question when the young woman who will save Robert Jones's soul comes to watch him play playground hoop with much younger and more dangerous men and leaves him when the "dumb knucklehead macho shit"nearly leads to his shooting. She who has lost sons to gang violence "can't love another dead man"and walks away from their love. The conventional gorgeousness of Wideman's prose descriptions of basketball being played, such as this--

In his rainbow headband and giant baggy shorts ballooning past his knees like purple wings, he's a butterfly pinned to the blue sky, a perfect snapshot she'll remember of a man flying like a bird who just might hang in the air forever, and does each time she brings the day into her mind, even though the next thing he does is tomahawk the ball down through the chainlink net, landing where it lands with his legs spread wide, hovering over the ball like it's an egg he laid, before he plucks it up and sets it gently as an egg on the endline, grinning Too late, too late like the gingerbread man at the other players

--is itself called into doubt as a sufficient kind of writing. The woman who teaches Robert how to love a blighted community, and the old, broken World War II veteran and amateur modernist photographer (Mr. Mallory, Giacometti's correspondent), together unwrite hoop as the award-winning John Edgar Wideman had always written it before. They teach him to depict the urban scene in a way that "invite[s] a viewer to stroll around"it, "to see [things] from various angles, see the image I offer as many images, one among countless ways of seeing, so the more they look, the more there is to see."The more we look at Two Cities and Hoop Roots, the more there is to see. It is this pleasurable "density of appearances,"a hoop cubism with radical social import, refusing any "single, special, secret view"in favor of many views simultaneously, that takes Wideman as a writer directly from the triumph of love he published in 1998 to the true social and aesthetic wisdom of Hoop Roots in 2001.

One event that came between Two Cities and Hoop Roots was Wideman's visit to the Kelly Writers House in April 2000, a celebratory return to the scene of his first anxious foray into white academe and his glories on the court as an All-Ivy star of Penn's basketball team. In several days of intense discussion with students, faculty, staff, West Philadelphia neighbors, old friends and colleagues, audiences that included coaches and players of Penn's current team, we caught glimpses of what hoop was coming to mean for this writer entering late-middle-age experimentally. During a discussion I helped lead (and which was excerpted here in the July/August 2000 issue), I asked Wideman to elaborate on a story he had told my students the previous day. As a Penn freshman, one of a few black students on campus, homesick for Homewood, he had very nearly left the University after just six weeks on campus. What had made him stay? Hoop had. He explained:

Basketball was my safety zone. It was a sanctuary. I had no doubt I was wanted there, that I had a place there. The basketball court offers a kind of democracy. The rules are quite simple, and everyone knows them. If you don't like them, you don't have to go there. In sports, there's a kind of openness about things and [yet] a really hard bottom line: If you hit the jumper, you can take the jumper. And some of the best teaching goes on in athletic programs, because you have such a willing constituency and it's to some degree voluntary. The same way, in my creative writing classes, people come to me because I'm a writer. They believe I offer something they want, and if you can't teach in those circumstances you're pretty hopeless. On the hoops court, most of the time, what you did counted--not what you wore before you stepped onto the court, not where you could go afterwards. You entered the Palestra and the court became a sort of magic square. You go out onto it, and you could create your own world.

This intrepid self-construction--the idea that we can help create our own world in writing as in hoop--leads to the brilliant social thesis of Hoop Roots. It's this: "The game's as portable as a belief."The butterfly pinned to the sky is pretty, but it was dead and undynamic the moment it hit the page. Wise love could not come from it. Nor could self-creation. Hoop teaches Wideman to write his way back--although it is always moving--to the troubled, unsolid ground.

Dr. Alan Filreis is the Class of 1942 Professor of English and faculty director of the Kelly Writers House.