"The sum is what all of them are trying to figure out" Apr 24, 2005
Set in the booming Internet days of late 1990's San Francisco, Eric Martin's Winners is all about basketball, chimney sweeping, corporate licentiousness, and life in the projects where drugs, violence, and poverty are an ineradicable way of life. It's a fantastic book, part mystery, part social discourse that paints an indelible portrait of a City on the cusp of profound change - where the rich of Pacific Heights rarely come into contact with the black downtrodden of the Potrero Hill projects. This is all about to change as Shane McCarthy, the embattled young hero of this story, finds himself irrevocably drawn into both worlds.
Shane is a twenty-year-old chimney sweep who lives for playing basketball. As the novel opens he's throwing some hoops at the local Firehouse Court with some mutual friends; they're a closely-knit affable bunch "of aging amateurs" who have been playing together for several years. Over time, Shane has become fond of them all. So when Sam, one of his buddies, suddenly disappears, leaving behind only a duffel bag, Shane decides to try and track him down, ostensibly to return his bag, but also to find out if he's OK.
Enlisting the help of Jimmy, his lazy, stay-at-home brother, they end up in the Potrero Hill projects, a down-and-out sleazy area that resembles "a prison camp quarry chiseled into the steep hill." Here Shane encounters all sorts of unsavory, shady characters. He also gets involved with Debra Marks a young, black single mother, whom he later finds out, is also the mother of Sam. Shane is a ball-playing, street-smart, down-to-earth kind of guy, a champion of a "self-determined life." But he's also romantically inclined and often views himself as an outcast in the highflying entrepreneurial world of Lou, his wife, and her dot-com friends.
With Lou busy hatching deals and wining and dining corporate sponsors, Shane is enigmatically drawn to Debra. There's something about her mixture of vulnerability, susceptibility, and streetwise toughness that attracts him. Yes - he wants to help her find Sam, but there's also a feeling that she's immune from the flashy, glitzy dot-com world of mostly white winners. Debra is also an outcast, and her sincerity and honesty manages capture him. Hers is a life of the gritty reality amongst the black losers in the crime-ridden projects, not the artificial, nouveaux riches of Lou's world, which Shane is gradually beginning to distain.
As the mystery of Sam's disappearance deepens, Shane discovers that these two apparently mutually exclusive worlds have connected in surprising ways. He also begins to question his life with Lou, and although he's tremendously supportive of her efforts to make them both rich, he sometimes feels as though he's like a fish out of water in her world. Lou is a fascinating character; the manager of Lever.com, she's the personification of someone who just wants to get rich; she's the creator, and when she's "build this one she'll do another and do another." Both Shane and Lou live in a world "where businesses born and die, and where love is consummated and dissolved."
Martin writes of San Francisco with a mixture of love, of admiration and also a certain gusto: "it's a big and cohesive, like a single organism with a million winking moving parts," and he manages to capture the city at a special time in its history where the lights of downtown stare with "well-lit offices telling tales of late hard-working nights." Caught up in a wave of unadulterated wealth, whole areas are becoming gentrified with new businesses springing up on every corner "salsa hopscotch kickboxing is transformed into aerobics, and where young venture/vulture capitalists go to meet fellow e-people." The author contrasts this with areas such Mission Street - the land of the Mexicans and their neighbors. "Everything is as dirty and functional as ever, still authentic and living and pocked with threat." And of course there are the Projects where "bright lights blaze from the corners of every building, like warning signals."
Winners is a staggering novel, full of smart, insightful, and often funny observations on the nature of greed, the human condition, and the never ending dilemma of the haves and the have-nots. And in Shane McCarthy, Martin has created a perfect conduit; through his conscience-ridden eyes, we see like never before, the horrific consequences of an almost surreal world that is mired artifice, avariciousness, and an almost unapologetic capitalistic insatiability. Mike Leonard April 05.
Culture clash and a basketball jones Feb 20, 2005
Winners jumps into action, as chimney sweep/ pickup basketball player Shane McCarthy hits the courts in 1999 San Francisco, after a year of waiting on the sidelines from an injury. Other than his wife, Lou, who is working feverishly to score in the Silicon Valley jackpot, Shane is a happy guy, his job uncomplicated and satisfying, the future looming brightly on the horizon.
The missing element is Sam, an astonishing young player who has suddenly dropped off the radar after five years of hoop games. Shane has been ferrying Sam's gym bag in his van for awhile, when he decides to track down the errant youth, Shane's brother Jimmy riding shotgun. The search takes them to the Potrero Hill projects, where Shane meets Debra, the mother of the missing player. Shane gets lost in another world, one far removed from the dot-com glamour of newly rich techies and their conspicuous consumerism. Caught in a culture clash of conflicting lifestyles, Shane moves between the shameless excesses of Pacific Heights to the threatening shadows of the crime-riddled projects.
Lou is on the fast track, on the verge of the big break, but Shane is running in place, trying to make sense of chaos. Everywhere Shane sees the urban sprawl of decay, the detritus of an indifferent society where money is the only pass to the Emerald City. Shane enters a different, more dangerous reality, not the white-washed sitcom view of the good life, but the mean streets, where hustlers sell dope and everyone wants to escape from the third-world mentality of poverty. The chasm between the haves and the have-not's is painfully obvious, fragile borders breaking down as the structures of inequity collide. In his efforts to aid Debra, Shane comes face to face with life without hope, where predators roam in plain sight.
Martin writes with vitality, his game larger than the basketball court, slipping from one part of the city to the next, from the gentrified yuppie renovations with their chrome and metal gyms to the projects, where real ball is played on the court, with attitude, as serious as death. This is great storytelling, Tom Wolfe without the pomposity, Brett Easton Ellis without the precocious self-aggrandizement. I care about these characters, especially Shane and Debra. I care about basketball (and I am not a sport's fan). And I get the significance of a society fueled by avarice, bulldozing everything in the path of economic cannibalism at its most virulent. Martin writes a vivid and engrossing novel, his protagonist a modern-day everyman with heart and a conscience in a greedy, greedy world, that rare author who cuts to the bone, not a word wasted and pitch-perfect dialog. Luan Gaines/ 2005.