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Original Issue

The trouble with Shainberg's novel is just that Portnoy never played basketball

No matter what J. D. Salinger or Herman Wouk or Philip Roth says about the home lives of Franny or Zooey or Marjorie Morningstar or even poor old Portnoy, I refuse to believe that American Jews make the world's worst parents. And I still refuse to believe it despite a lot of new and nerve-shattering evidence offered up by Lawrence Shainberg in an erotic basketball novel—no kidding, an erotic basketball novel—with the raunchy title of One on One.

What Mr. Shainberg gives us, before his first novel has so much as peeled off its warm-up suit, is the standard All-Jewish-American fiction lineup—the frenetic boob of a father, the chicken-soup mother who can barely endure the old man and the enormously fouled-up son who, since in this case he is 6'9" tall, is even more fouled up than usual. These three apparently doomed souls, guided upcourt by a domineering psychoanalyst, scamper through the book with a fast-breaking display of self-abuse and self-destruction, conveyed in four-and seven-letter words that ramble on into that same Anglo-Saxon night through which so much contemporary Jewish fiction is groping.

The tragedy is that, despite his many fouls, author Shainberg shows that he can write. Moreover, his book is a bold attempt—albeit an awesomely difficult one—to tell the story of a brief but intensive nervous collapse on the part of a young superstar the day of his first major college basketball game in Madison Square Garden. The boy, El-wood Baskin, has the physical dimensions of Willis Reed, the ability to float around a court like Lew Alcindor and a touch that suggests the soft, deadly arcing shots of the splendid old Celtic Sam Jones. Not a bad range of skills for a kid, and Shainberg is at his very best describing them. He is able to show us how it is to be an athlete, to do things superbly well without thinking, to feel the ebb and flow of a game and, most of all, to have lived almost an entire life within the physical and emotional boundaries of a basketball court. He gets these things across through a sequence of fantasies that occur in the boy's mind as reality begins to explode into whirling fragments the morning of the test at the Garden:

"I am listening to those days when the games begin at eight in the morning and go on until dark, when the ball gets oiled and slippery from the sweat of your hands, and your feet burn from the heat of the concrete, when finally you play without a word, no congratulations for a good shot, no complaints about fouls, those days when finally there is nothing but the sound of the game.... Before the ball leaves your hands you know the shot is good.... Not because you've decided somewhere in your mind to shoot so hard, so high, and give the ball just so much spin, but because suddenly you and the ball and the hoop are together, all of one piece, and it is impossible to miss."

Reading passages like this, you know what an athlete feels. And by maintaining this kind of fidelity, Shainberg adds to the small but growing body of contemporary fiction in which sport is finally being recognized as a legitimate background for adult storytelling. It is simply a pity that all too often you must pay for it by wading through a sticky morass of sick, extravagant sex and sex fantasy, resting upon the tired pedestal of Jewish parenthood.