On the cover of The Sidekick, just below a broken basketball hoop, a quote from Jonathan Lethem suggests Benjamin Markovits is a ‘classic American voice’. Open the book and the first sentence – ‘I was a big slow fat kid but one thing I could do was shoot free throws’ – confirms the kind of American classicism we can expect: Salinger-conversational, Updike-melancholic, Roth-confessional. Male and white, in short. A decade ago, when The Sidekickis largely set, this would be hardly worth mentioning, but for a new novel to stand on such patriarchal shoulders now feels curiously old-fashioned. And while Markovits strives for something more contemporary, it is that voice – of Brian Blum, a sportswriter – that is the novel’s principal strength, but also its weakness.
In the mid-1990s, Brian tries out for the high school basketball team and meets Marcus Hayes. Brian is white, Marcus is black. They strike up a friendship based exclusively on ball games and basketball talk, until Marcus’s mother decides to move to Dallas, whereupon Marcus goes to live with Brian and his family. A couple of decades later, Marcus, who in the intervening years has become a fabulously wealthy former star, chooses to come out of retirement. Sensing a story, Blum signs a six-figure book deal to cover the comeback, negotiating access to his former friend to tell the inside story.
All of this has the distinctive topography of a classic American story: sports as a metaphor for the fracture of the US; friendship as a microcosm of race relations; the innocence of pick-up games in schoolyards vs the cynicism of the big leagues. To a greater or lesser extent, these themes are present in The Sidekick. The trouble is that the reader must go through Blum to find them.
In an occasionally stylistically odd voice – the use of ellipses, and ‘like’ to break up sentences is supposed, one assumes, to sound conversational but becomes maddening to the point of distraction – Blum is never off the page: the centre of the world. In the sections about their youth, we don’t really get to know Marcus outside of his association with Blum, while when adults they barely spend more than a few moments together.
So for most of the book the stakes feel frustratingly low: we don’t know enough about Marcus to care about his comeback; likewise, Blum’s queasy romantic encounter with a college student, and a later health scare, lack conviction. None of this is helped by Blum’s questionable way of depicting women – they are bodies, first and foremost, pretty or not pretty – and his detailed descriptions of basketball could discourage those not intimate with the game.
Yet, despite all of this, the last act ignites into something compelling and emotionally resonant. Markovits’s themes – power, friendship, entitlement – are finally given his A-game, the closing pages suggesting that what we have been reading is less the ‘classic’ voice Lethem identified than an uncompromising attempt to subvert it. But to leave it so late is a risky ploy, and The Sidekick suffers from its laboured set-up.
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