Sunday, November 30, 2008

Review - Bloody Confused!

Sportswriter Chuck Culpepper became disillusioned after 20 years of covering all kinds of sports. So he decided to become a fan again, to get away from the excesses of modern American sports by moving to England and becoming a devotee of a sport about which he knew almost nothing: soccer.

He has chronicled his sojourn in the delightful book, Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer (2007). It begins with his mental state in a remarkable chapter that embodies pretty much everything negative about big-time sports in this country. The "rote utterances" by coaches and athletes, the dying brain cells, and, the last straw, the Congressional steroids hearing in which the lying and unresponsiveness of our great American heroes was juxtaposed with "unspeakable moment[s] in which one congressman or another would, before our very eyes, morph into blubber and start fawning over the presence of the baseball players": all of this and more sent Culpepper onto a plane, in search of a team he could believe in playing a sport he didn't know.

There is no great surprise here. Culpepper doesn't choose to follow one of the big four teams that dominate Premier League soccer (those who spend money like the New York Yankees), so I'm not giving anything away to tell you that he doesn't get to experience a championship. He simply tells us about his travels with the team, a journey he truly takes as a fan, not a writer.

About three-quarters of the way through this book, I became a bit disoriented. It's supposedly a sports book (796.33340942 in the catalog), but you will learn pretty much nothing about soccer here. We don't get to know the athletes at all. I was enjoying this trip, but it was not what I expected.

And then it occurred to me. This isn't a sports book at all, but a travel book. It's the story of one person stepping into a foreign environment for a year and describing his experiences. And the description isn't even comprehensive, we hear nothing about what Culpepper eats or how he lives or what he does when he's not at the stadium or on his way to the stadium or on his way back from the stadium. We meet some of the fans of his chosen team (Portsmouth, if you must know), and the experiences he shares with one who dresses as a blue bear are actually a bit repetitive (OK, irritating), but we don't see behind their fandom and see how they live.

This may not sound very positive, but the book is quite charming. Once I stopped expecting things and just experienced what Culpepper did, I was entranced. For one like myself who is a bit burned out on modern sports, his trip is irresistible. He fights his way back into being a sports fan again by creating a situation that is new and fresh, awakening the eight-year-old boy that has so long laid dormant.

For this is a travel book in the best sense. It takes a selective view of a new environment, since it is impossible to be comprehensive when living in somewhere you've never been before. More importantly, it highlights the changes in the writer; the success of the team is not so important as that Culpepper regains his wonder at sport. I'm not spoiling the end when I suggest he succeeds at that.

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