Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins: Ping-Pong and the Art of Staying Alive

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM

It’s 1947. A young woman is sunning herself in a bathing suit with the top rolled down. The future author of Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins is but an adolescent struggling in vain not to stare at her breasts. A young GI comes, makes love to the girl in the grass and then teaches the boy how to play Ping-Pong. Thus begins a table-tennis epic, a collection of short stories that’s part history book, part memoir and all fascinating. Jerome Charyn, amateur player and professional writer, tells about his charmed life around a game that seems much more insignificant than his account ultimately reveals.

This book is lush. It talks about the important role Ping-Pong once played in international diplomacy. It relates mathematics and Zen to the game. It’s about the human struggle against aging. There are parts about writing, philosophy and history, and even how technology has affected this seemingly silly hobby. It’s funny how encompassing the sport is in these tales, but it’s not boring at all.

In one of the stories, Charyn describes the game as a way to stay out of “Hemingway’s Room,” a place where old age and depression drive you mad enough to blow your brains out. The narrator is a guy over 60 and ignoring doctor’s orders not to play competitively because he can’t live without it.

It’s easy not to give a damn about sports in a time when multimillionaire athletes are traipsing around in uniforms with advertisements on them. But this book reminds us how someone can really be in love with a game. The author’s heroes, Marty Reisman and Dick Miles, weren’t raking in millions (or even hundreds) of dollars, but Ping-Pong was their life. They hustled people, traveled around the world and spent hours on end, anywhere, playing and playing.

You don’t have to like or know anything about table tennis to have fun reading Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins. What could have easily been rambling, rehashing and name-dropping is morphed by Charyn’s lust for life into an exciting, brilliant story.

Mike Savage is a Metro Times intern. E-mail comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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