Red Dirt

A Tennis Novel

By Joe Samuel Starnes

Breakaway Books. 346 pp. $14.95.

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Reviewed by

Frank Wilson

Jaxie Skinner is 3 when he sits with his family on the sofa in their house in Piney, Ga., and watches the first Björn Borg-John McEnroe final at Wimbledon in 1980. Afterward, his father goes outside and climbs onto his bulldozer:

He made a long pass of about 120 feet and then turned and went back the other way, clearing another wide swath to reveal a large rectangle of virgin clay. The fresh earth shone, steaming in the hot sun. "Red dirt," he said. "Nothing like red dirt."

It becomes the first clay court Jaxie will play on.

With the help of a shrewd trainer named Harry Crummy, Jaxie proves to be something of a tennis prodigy who makes it to the French Open by the time he is 18. Off the court, he is singularly devoid of common sense. He's also a randy sort, and his extracurricular activities during the French Open end up making tabloid headlines.

A try at Wimbledon ends with a serious knee injury, and Jaxie spends 10 years as a drunken recluse in the house he grew up in. The harsh consequences of another of his ill-advised dalliances, though, gets him started on the comeback trail.

I don't know squat about tennis. I've never played it, and I don't think I've ever watched an entire match. So I was rather surprised to find myself engrossed in Joe Samuel Starnes' "tennis novel."

To begin with, Jaxie is a pretty honest narrator. When he describes himself toward the end as "a dude who has done the best I could and am trying to make right for the bad deeds I've done, to recover some of the talent I've wasted," he's actually not just blowing smoke.

Even more telling perhaps is how much the descriptions of the matches work. I am sure I didn't understand all the technical nuances, but I always got the gist. That's because Starnes shrewdly couches them in a way that makes the playing on the court seem so much a metaphor for life's vicissitudes and our own fleeting awareness. "The head," Jaxie tells us, "is the great equalizer, the Achilles' heel that has brought many a player down to the level where they can lose to a fat kid with a cast on his hand who hits nothing but lobs. I lost a match like that one time. For me, the head comes and goes."

Who can't say much the same? In a sense, we're all playing tennis.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog, Books, Inq. - The Epilogue, at E-mail him at