make it, take it

Reviewed by Don Johnson, East Tennessee State University

22 july 2013       archive

At first glance Rus Bradburd's new novel appears for all the world to be a straight-ahead expose of the fraud and abuse rampant in major college basketball. Make It, Take It is set at Southern Arizona State University where a new coach has been brought in to energize a failing program. The new coach, Jack Hood, is revealed early on as a thoroughgoing son of a bitch, a fact that makes little difference if he's a winner. Unfortunately, he's a loser who cares little for his players, his assistant coaches, even his wife, an alcoholic, who has been as victimized by Hood's crassness and insensitivity as any of the other characters in the novel.

The most serious victim, however, is Steve Pytel, the novel's true protagonist, who had hoped to win the head coaching position at State, but is now forced to work as the lead assistant for a lesser man. But Pytel suffers from his own ambition as well as well as from his university's failure to reward his efforts, the head coach's lack of concern for his welfare, and the "system's" demand for victory as the only measure of a coach's success. Pytel does care for his players, and he intercedes on their behalf in order to protect their eligibility and reputations, but their personal welfare is always secondary to the team's success. In one of the novel's central episodes Pytel travels to a religious camp in Michigan to pay an unofficial visit to a promising recruit that major universities have as yet not discovered. He passes out while attending a chapel service at the camp, where he is the only white person, and has to be carried outside by the young campers. Pytel himself is unsure if his collapse stemmed from fatigue and dehydration or if he had been genuinely moved by the fervor of the moment. He knows that he had "been hit by something that left me to wonder what the hell we had all been doing." The incident reveals the protagonist's recognition of his own spiritual deficiencies, which gnaw on him throughout the novel, but fail to influence his behavior in a definitive way. While he is appalled by Jack Hood's treatment of others, he lies to recruits, and to university officials and takes advantage of other assistant coaches in order to promote his own success.

While Bradburd's complex portrayal of Steve Pytel is the novel's most successful component, his revelation of the culture of the game is a close second, particularly the delicate dance involving the recruitment and treatment of African American athletes, even by black coaches, one of whom accompanies a prospective recruit's girl friend to an abortion clinic, all the while lying to the young man about what is transpiring.

A bio for Bradburd in the most recent issue of Puerto del Sol described Make It, Take It as "a novel in stories," a nod to the fact that the overall narrative unfolds through multiple points of view: a traditional third person perspective, Pytel's own story, that of Jerry Conroy (the coach Jack Hood replaced), and even freshman essays by two of the team's players. The overall effect, however, is that of a story unified both thematically and emotionally. Despite the fact that Pytel's wife, who eventually leaves, describes his chosen profession as "soul killing," Bradburd"s narrative generates a concern for his characters that sustains his story through whatever narrative technique he chooses. We care about the naïve and vulnerable players, the misguided coaches, the conflicted Pytel, even Jack Hood, who ends up as a coach at a small high school in Nebraska where he is tempted to resign after his first coaching session, but who stays on because of what can only be described as a deep-seated love of the game in its purest form.

Bradburd, Rus. Make It, Take It. El Paso, TX: Cinco Punto Press, 2013. 188 pp.

Copyright © 2013 by Don Johnson

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