Literature is shot through with great scenes from sporting history – from Norman Mailer’s spectacular account of The Rumble In The Jungle in The Fight, through the glorious opening of Don Delillo’s Underworld, depicting The Shot Heard ‘Round The World. In the UK, we have modern classics like David Storey’s This Sporting Life, the rags-to-riches tale of a miner who becomes a rugby league star, and of course, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.
Now there is a new wave of writers bringing sports writing the pages of fiction. The past few months has seen a slew of great sports novels – here are my picks of the best.
The Sidekick, by Benjamin Markovits, is narrated by sportswriter Brian, a man who has made a career of reporting the rise of his childhood friend Marcus as he went from basketball prodigy to the sport’s biggest star. Three years after retirement, Marcus is ready for a Michael Jordan-style comeback to secure his legacy – and he wants Brian to write a book about it. Brian is happy to take the gig but the two are no longer what you would call buddies. In fact, nobody gets close to the real Marcus any more, so tightly is his image controlled. The new arrangement leaves Brian wondering when it will be time for him to step out from his old friend’s shadow.
This is a great character novel filled with insight into the mechanics of basketball and professional sport. More than that though, it is an honest and true account of the fading sheen of youth, as we watch Brian slip slowly into middle age. A genuinely great novel, perfect for fans of Nickolas Butler and Chad Harbach.
“People should write about Uriah Rennie because that’s what he wants.” So went the famous rant by then-Manchester City manager Kevin Keegan after a Worthington Cup match in 2001, unhappy as he was at the referee’s performance. Well, two decades later, novelist (and amateur referee) Ashley Hickson-Lovence has done just that.
Hickson-Lovence has brought the career of Rennie – still unbelievably the Premier League’s only ever black referee – vividly to life in his fresh, genre-defying new novel, Your Show. Told in second person, we see Rennie’s humble beginnings in Jamaica, his working-class upbringing in Sheffield and ultimately his rise to the top of the refereeing pyramid. It is a tale of hard work, determination and devotion to his craft, often in the face of racism and vile abuse from fans. He also had his fair share of run-ins with the great players of the era, too (looking at you, Alan Shearer).
On one hand a deeply personal fictional memoir, on the other a nostalgia trip through late 90s and early 00s English football, Your Show sets a new standard for what is possible in sports writing.
Finally, and fresh into paperback, is my favourite book of last year, Peterdown by David Annand, a spectacular epic of modern Britain and an ode to fans of unfashionable football clubs.
High speed rail is coming to the north of England and Peterdown has been chosen as its splitter hub. The only thing left to decide is where to put the station. Three options are on the table – The Larkspur, a brutalist housing estate hated by much of the town but culturally and architecturally significant; The Generator, a multi-million pound, largely unused arts centre; or The Chapel, beloved home of Peterdown United FC and the heart of the community.
We follow Colin, sports reporter for the local paper and a son of the town, and his partner Ellie, a London-born architect dragged to Peterdown by its lure of cheap housing after the birth of their child. Colin can’t bare the prospect of the club he loves being shunted out of town – but the millionaire owner would happily see a new stadium and all the opportunities that might bring. Ellie, meanwhile, sees the Larkspur as her salvation, a rescue mission not just for the forgotten female architect who designed it, but for her own career, stalled as it has been by motherhood and this odd town.
Peterdown is a hilarious, anarchic and deeply political book about community, family, local politics and football. (David Annand popped into the shop to sign copies of the paperback this week so drop in or send us an email if you’d like one!)