an african rebound

Reviewed by G. Louis Heath, Ashford University

23 may 2013       archive

This book abruptly turned into a superb mystery thriller, decidedly a compelling page turner, about two-thirds the way in. Up to that point, it was proving an excellent somewhat conventional sports novel about 66-year old coach Jim Keating, down on his luck, jobless, living in a one-room apartment back in his hometown, trying to get his bearings out of clinical depression following the loss of his university coaching job and the death of his beloved wife of almost four decades.

The haze in his life begins to clear when the opportunity to go to Burundi and build a national team for that country, beset by tribal warfare with Rwanda, presents itself through a high school friend , Barry Sklar, who has a long career going in the Foreign Service and who has heard about his plight and wishes to repay Jim for protecting him from small-town, anti-Semitic bullies during their Worcester, Massachusetts high school years.

Clearly, Jim Keating is a lifelong fighter against prejudice and his firing from his coaching job at fictional New Jersey State University, owing to an allegation of racism by his black assistant coach, Robert Frazier (who desires the top job), is undeserved, but the University Administration, hemmed in by adverse media, feels compelled to dismiss him despite the untruths that have been fomented by Frazier to divide the team, blacks versus whites, blacks versus the coach. About the same time his 59-year-od wife, Edna, dies of breast cancer, the treatment for which he has paid out of pocket because of lapsed insurance. (The author's explanation for how this happens involves the switch from a Spanish Division I League coaching position to an American collegiate one in New Jersey.) The upshot is that the costly, long-term treatments almost totally deplete the Keatings' bank balance.

In rapid succession, Coach Keating finds himself unemployed, wifeless, and near the end of his financial resources as well as clinically depressed in need of regular psychiatric care, as described in the novel. Not only appointments with his shrink, but, verily, over 470 pages this novel manages to get in a little of many things including a couple tons of sports trivia, which really add zest to the book. For example: John Wooden coached at Indiana State the 1946-1947 season prior to departing for UCLA. Also included is a good deal of hammy-Hallmark-style poetry penned by Coach Keating himself, who reads near the end of the novel before the 4th Annual Emily Dickinson Poetry Society Festival in Bujumbura, Burundi, overlooking scenic Lake Tanganyika.

Dan Doyle mixes Burundi and Rwanda history in well in his novel. He notes that the most recent recrudescence of the centuries old Hutu-Tutsi conflict was sparked when Hutu Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana's private Falcon 50 jet, carrying Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, a fellow Hutu, was shot down in a rocket attack near Kigali International Airport in Rwanda on April 6, 1994. This set off a Hutu genocide of over a half-million Tutsis in the short interval of three months.

It is against this backdrop that Coach Keating appears to develop a national Burundi team of the larger Tutsis, averaging 6 foot 7, with the shorter, more muscular Hutus, averaging 5 foot 11. His effort begins very promisingly with the discovery of 7-foot-1 fifteen-year-old Leonard Tangashika , a tremendous natural athlete who becomes very good at basketball with a few weeks of intensive coaching and practice. A game between Rwanda and Burundi is scheduled. A CNN reporter hears of it and reports on Leonard who becomes a global sensation after a video clip of his dominance, now aged 16, in scoring and blocking shots in the game, is aired by CNN World.

At this point, I am enjoying the plot, expecting it to sugar along till everyone dribbles into the sunset. But two-thirds of the way into the novel, the plot takes a dramatic turn of events with a bio-terrorist attack that dramatically impacts Leonard, his mother, and others in their village. With that intrusion of terrorism, I am shocked because I am thinking this novel is Doyle's nod to the legacy of Clair Bee's 23-novel Muscular Christian, no-evil Chip Hilton series (1948-1965), a series he notes in the novel. Jim Keating and Leonard Tangashika strike me both as Chip Hilton-like role models. But the sunny sports novel I hold in my hands turns very, very dark indeed and becomes more of a mystery thriller that takes the reader to the Republic of South Africa, the United States, and the Seychelles.

The final third of AN AFRICAN REBOUND shows the influence of Harlan Coben's 10-novel Myron Bolitar sports agent series (1995-2011), especially FADE AWAY. Bolitar is a former basketball player turned sports agent who often investigates murders involving his clients. The author, Dan Doyle, has read this series and my strong suspicion is that AN AFRICAN REBOUND reflects Coben's darker side.

To be honest, Doyle is not as good at the bio-terror subplot he introduces late into the novel, but it is OK-good, as opposed to the excellent writing featuring a fine detailed plot and compelling character portrayals of the first 2/3rds of the novel. But the prospective reader should not be dissuaded. This is a fine read, a superb first novel wrought by a very talented writer, who demonstrates a topflight command of the English language as well as considerable erudition of literature and poetry. For a former coach with a career record of 142-45 at Trinity College, founder and executive director of the Institute for International Sport, he is living proof that an athletic and coaching background need not be an impediment to literary excellence. Muscular writing is possible!

Doyle draws heavily on details of flora, geography, culture, politics, people, and history from his 1990 travel to Burundi to develop Project Burundi in tandem with American diplomats. This involved sports as a form of peacemaking, which is the novel's rationale, a questionable one at best. Beyond this, I question how original the novel is. I hasten to point to the 1994 movie, "The Air Up There," featuring Kevin Bacon as coach Jimmy Dolan, who goes to Africa to recruit a potential NBA star, one very tall Saleh. This is very similar to the plot of AN AFRICAN REBOUND that Doyle publishes here, 19 years later. Presumably, Doyle has seen or is at least aware of "The Air Up There." I would love to know fully how Doyle conceived his novel.

Also, I must point to another concern. Though Doyle's male characters are well-drawn, the female ones are of 2-D cardboard, rather constricted and stylized. Perhaps Doyle needs to coach a women's team to delve more deeply into women's psyches. Or make more contact with the female half of humanity. At least the distaff side of his editorial duo at Skyhorse Publishing, Nicole Frail, should have remarked to the author his women's characterological frailties (pun intended).

With these quibbles aside, I urge you to read AN AFRICAN REBOUND. The effort will redound to your reading satisfaction and the enhancement of your knowledge of basketball and Africa.

Dan Doyle, AN AFRICAN REBOUND: A NOVEL. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), 470 pages.

Copyright © 2013 by G. Louis Heath

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