Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cheer!; The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats

Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading’s Ultimate Prize
Kate Torgovnick (Touchstone, 2008)

The Backwash Squeeze & Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer’s Journey into the World of Bridge
Edward McPherson (HarperCollins, 2007)

It’s not that I’m so fascinated by bridge, or cheerleading, exactly-- indeed, as these books amply point out, these are among the most gloriously pointless enterprises our species undertakes--but obsession on a grand scale can be fascinating in its own right.

in Cheer!. Kate Torgovnick follows the championship-hunting fortunes of three college cheerleading squads by embedding herself, and credibly reporting on a year in their lives. The Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas represents the dominant powerhouse program, where hopefuls go to tryouts for the squad before they even decide whether to enroll at the school. (Anybody who can’t reliably do a back somersault from a standing start might as well head down the road to Kilgore Junior College.) She hangs out with the All-Girl squad from the University of Memphis; they are, in a sense, the leftovers from the school’s Co-Ed squad, but they stand a better chance of ruling their own division. And she gets inside the Southern University Jaguars, from a historically black college in Baton Rouge. They can’t quite afford what they’re trying to do, especially with Hurricane Katrina’s costs still piling up, but the tradition and spirit are undeniable.
Torgovnick’s style of narrative nonfiction comes from the fly-on-the-wall school, for the most part, but I enjoyed a few glimpses of her own reflection. She doesn’t come from a cheerleader culture, having skipped every pep rally in high school, so it’s nice to find her holding her breath, and crying, when her friends and subjects get up to perform. They feed her her first crawfish (“shrimp’s uglier cousin”,) and make her pray with them before they compete.

While by no means intended as an expose, Cheer! takes a look at some of the madness associated with cheer culture: steroids for the men, eating disorders for the women, and the risk of serious injury. Torgovnick suggests that catastrophic injuries are less frequent than recent media reports have claimed, but she also shows how Marine-tough these athletes are--bruises and sprains barely count as injuries. Whether cheering for football games or as a purely competitive squad (which is the crazier occupation, in the end?) it’s an extremely time-consuming business, compromising the college education that is meant to be going on alongside.

Cheer! has a few weaknesses. The writing could be tighter in places. People who haven’t tried to do stunts like this will find the descriptions of routines a bit eye-glazing. (It helps to look them up on YouTube.) I’d have liked a deeper exploration of some of the students’ backgrounds, and their goals in life after their college days, but there’s room to suspect that Torgovnick is not interested in these things because the kids aren’t, either. They are cheerleaders, now and forever.

In The Backwash Squeeze, Edward McPherson enters the world of bridge enthusiasts as a beginning student. It’s a world glittering with eccentrics and characters, and it’s so small that he can get to know some of the finest players in the world. Probably it’s bad news that the learning curve for the game is so steep: McPherson has no more chance of playing tournament-quality bridge than Kate Torgovnick has of pulling off a standing back flip, but he’s a brilliant travelling companion, interested in decor, food, and the costumes of the locals.

He takes us places we’d like to go, like cozy London clubs. He takes us places we never have to go: ”Many before me have detailed the gonzo lunacy that is Las Vegas--see Hunter S. Thompson, et al.--but let’s just say that few things inspire fear and loathing like midweek mornings at the Tropicana.” He takes us places that we can scarcely imagine, like the Smoky Mountain Mid-Atlantic Bridge Conference Regional Bridge Tournament, where bridge nuts play from nine a.m. to the wee hours for a solid week, oblivious to the bizarrely tacky surroundings of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

McPherson leavens his lessons with the history of the game, including a San Quentin foursome that was broken up when the Freeway Killer was excuted. There’s some question where the next generation of players will come from, because both the time and the concentration required to play skillful bridge seem harder to come by all the time. The internet is part of the answer, since the student can observe the play of masters, with commentary, but the current poker craze looms as a distraction there too.

I don’t think bridge can be killed. It comes down to the comforts of obsession. McPherson says, toward the end of the book, “Bridge is a battle between fate and chance mediated by skill. To play is to try to rationalize the irrational, to outwit chaos.” Who could resist?

Email, spring 2008

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