by Weston Cutter
John Brenkus’s The Perfection Point is a hell of a fun read, the sort of breezy and hell yes of a book some of us may need these grayer autumnal days. The host of ESPN’s Sport Science, Brenkus has written a book which is one big glance out to distances unlikely to be attained: what’s the limit of human sport capability? How far could a baseball be hit, a golf ball driven? How about the longest someone could hold her breath under water, or the fastest one could swim a 50?
Here’s why this book ends up being fascinatingly readable: Brenkus begins chapters with false newspaper stories set in the future, speculative fictions which cover the imagined narratives Brenkus is breaking down the numbers for in present tense. What’s strange about that little ploy is nearly everything: if I were to tell you there was a great book which, on page 34, included a story set in Russia in the year 2344, you’d likely not be guessing the book was written by an ESPN guy, yes?
An emphatic indeed is what I’m hoping you’ll be now mouthing. What these little fictions (which thread through each chapter; the stories begin each chapter and, usually, end each chapter as well) accomplish is the tricky, fascinating task of gounding sports accomplishments in historical contexts. Most of us are pretty keenly aware of the more overt ways these things are manifest (see Bonds, Barry), but there are smaller, less-overt ways things like these come up, too (LZR swimsuit; carbon fiber golf clubs, etc.).
Maybe best about the book? It weds its futuristic speculations with Brenkus-penned absolutes—that no one will ever swim a 50 faster than just more than 18 seconds. Is there a single reader, anywhere, who won’t automatically think I want to do that or (much more likely) I’d like to see someone else do that? There is not one single reader anywhere who won’t feel that way. Read on.
Oh good lord. Do you remember Some Things That Meant the World to Me? From last summer? How Mohr, with his madfurious language and the ground shaky undernearth Rhonda as he made his strange and hallucinatorially freaked way through certain worlds? Remember how nothing else came close to that novel for sheer is-on-fire language (Blake Butler’s stuff, certainly, actually, up there and close)? And how it was this fantastic new-ish press, Two Dollar Radio?
Of course to all that. Of course to another year, another Mohr book, this one, Termite Parade, even better if scarier (Blue Velvet/Mullholland not Scream scary), if less holy-shit-that’s-one-flourescent-life and more wait-wait-I-can-imagine-that. Is anyone else lobbing sentences which feature such fragmentingly wild ordnance? Is any other press putting out such dynamite, gorgeous, suck-you-in books? No and no. Final question: what more will it take for you to get this book now?
This is strange: Manning’s got a bizarre little niche for himself now, having edited several nonfiction collections (and written a memoir as well, which I’ve not read). The cool thing is, he’s editing anthologies which are fairly fun and interesting to read—famous folks (mostly writers, though also Craig Finn of the Hold Steady) writing about their favorite baseball players, for instance—and this latest anthology might be the best, though “best” deserves some unpacking. What it is, in simplest terms, is exactly what it’s cover claims: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book. Take a second, when you get to this cover, and note two things: 1) Catcher in the Rye doesn’t show up in-text, but this anthology’s cover is the ultimate in homage, and 2) take careful note of that word cherished. You’d be surprised how slippery it’ll be.
What do I mean? Well, the thing starts with Jim Shepard, whose piece is not just phenomenal but fantastical—much like all of what Shepard writes—and the books he cherishes (Crying/49, Heart/Heart/Country) come through strange channels. There’s the phenomenal Terrence Holt talking about his Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, there’s Hadju talking about his copy of Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man, there’s Jim Knipfel’s entry on Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, which entry is the second-most emotionally compelling entry of the bunch. What’s the first most compelling? Here’s a line from it: “I was asked to contribute to this anthology because I am the widow, via hanging, of the writer David Foster Wallace.”
So that’s in there, which means this book’s got a guaranteed audience from all the DFW-heads out longing every minute for some new bit to chew: here’s KGreen talking about Amy Hempel and grief. Maybe there’s no need to say much else: certainly if you’re here, looking at book reviews on a tiny book-review site, you already love books; this book’s made for all of us who do so.