TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Dana Czapnik has spent most of her career on the editorial side of professional sports, including ESPN The Magazine. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Czapnik's deep knowledge of sports served her well in writing her debut novel called "The Falconer." Here's Maureen's review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Here's a sentence of critical praise I never expected to utter. The descriptions of basketball games in this novel are riveting. The novel that's elicited this aberrant compliment is "The Falconer" by Dana Czapnik. It's a coming-of-age story set in early 1990s New York about an athletic 17-year-old girl named Lucy Adler. Lucy feels most like herself when she's playing basketball because she doesn't try to conform to the gender norms of the time. Lucy faces ostracism at school and some rough pushback from random guys on the public basketball courts where she often plays.
"The Falconer" is a crossover book. It could be classified as a YA novel. It certainly will also appeal to adult readers like me. Coming of age in the New York of the 1960s and 70s, the closest I got to playing ball was bouncing a pink Spaldeen on the sidewalk. Girls didn't play on many sports teams in those pre-Title IX days, which maybe accounts for why I'm not much of a sports fan now. But Lucy's sweaty, all-in passion for basketball, which Czapnik captures so vividly in "The Falconer" gives me a sharp sense of what I missed out on. Lucy's Jewish and Italian family is middle-class and lives on the Upper West Side when that would've still been possible.
Her best friend from childhood is a handsome rich boy named Percy Abney. He's also a really good basketball player, which adds to his popularity even as it makes Lucy, who's seen as too tall and too fierce, a freak. Basketball is their chief bond. Although Lucy nurses a serious crush on Percy, as she tells us in the midst of playing one-on-one against him, colliding collar bones into shoulders, contact like this is what I live for. One night, though, after going to the planetarium together and smoking a lot of dope, they wind up having sex in his family's townhouse. Afterwards, Percy coolly advises Lucy not to get weird on him. Lucy is crushed. Walking home on a deserted West End Avenue afterwards, she pulls her smelly basketball warmups over her face and cries. I wanted to be his secret discovery, but I am nothing - just another stupid girl.
In the tradition of classic New York stories, Lucy does a lot of walking. And following her as she roams through vanished or now-altered New York places is another pleasure of this novel. We're taken into her cousin's crummy tenement on the Lower East Side, grab a slice with her at the corner pizzeria and tag along as she rides the subway, somewhat ironically, to her senior prom. One place that's especially important to her is The Falconer statue in Central Park. It's a real statue, much vandalized over the years, of a young boy in Shakespearean-type costume releasing a falcon into the air. Lucy tells us she loves it because it's reminiscent of the feeling when you hit the perfect jump shot.
Some breathless blurbs of "The Falconer" have likened Lucy to Holden Caulfield. But I think the more fitting comparison is to Francie Nolan, heroine of "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." Like Francie, Lucy is self-aware and glazed over with a city-girl toughness. She's distinguished not by prettiness but by determination. Nowhere does that determination blast through more powerfully than in her frequent accounts of playing basketball. Here's one from the end of the novel, where Lucy describes playing a pickup game with a bunch of guys on a public court.
(Reading) One guy dribbles the ball between his legs a few times, briefly loses composure - a life below the rim. I could steal it easy. His ball-handling's shaky. But then everyone on the court will know that I'm not some trifle. And they'll get angry that a girl just made them look like asses. And I'll get double-teamed with a heat, and my game will be done. The trick is to let the pot boil slowly, let them think you're just average or good for a girl and then slowly, slowly, slowly begin to let your true self shine. That's the only way to avoid feeling the jealous, embarrassed rage of a dude who's been beat.
There's so much more going on in "The Falconer" than just basketball. But as folks I know who love the game tell me, this seemingly speedy game slows down for good players. They can see everything happening on the court - every player, every movement, every possibility with startling clarity. In "The Falconer" Dana Czapnik displays the same gift. In bringing Lucy to life, she sees the whole game.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Falconer" by Dana Czapnik. And we want to congratulate Maureen on winning this year's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about working hard but living below the poverty line. My guest will be Stephanie Land, author of the new memoir "Maid," which chronicles how she ended up in a homeless shelter with her young daughter, fleeing an abusive relationship. She writes about cleaning houses for a living, the hurdles to getting public assistance and how she eventually put herself through college and became a writer. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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