There is a clear line between comic fiction and intelligent social satire, and Marcus Cootsona’s novel, Rubber Match, treads a careful dance between the two, providing an entertaining narrative, but never letting readers forget that they are enjoying the handily crafted prose of a witty wordsmith. Peppered with clever modern allusions and sharp rhetoric, the novel is a smart, savvy, tongue-in-cheek work of fiction. Cootsona knows his audience and plays to the crowd, moving slowly at times, but always with a feeling that things will soon get uniquely interesting.
Following a few brief, tennis-heavy chapters, Wally, an ex-tennis teaching pro, embarks on a road trip with his wife to see their son play in a college tour. When the trip veers off-course, the novel follows suit, and it soon becomes obvious that writing a tangled, heavily symbolic novel is the goal, rather than achieving a cohesive plot with expected payoffs and explanations for some of the weirder moments and descriptions.
This is post-modern fiction disguised as something much simpler, and as the story continues to spin away from what readers expect, control must be relinquished to the whimsical mind of the author. The plot grows to almost farcical, larger-than-life dimensions, with this seemingly simple, tennis-loving family being sucked into a mysterious world of art forgery, larceny and madness.
Wally is pulled back into the world of professional tennis, not necessarily against his better judgment, but in spite of his rusty qualifications. Immersed back in that world, Wally finds that there is much more than tennis on the table, including a billion-dollar prize for winning the Davis Cup. His old passions and his new life mix in a rather thrilling tennis novel that is about everything but sports.
Cultural collision, generational evolution, popular media and concepts of fame and nostalgia are all heavy imbued in the pages of this novel. With Ashley Margincall, the ambitious billion-heiress, funding and supporting Wally’s return to his beloved sport, he isn’t fool enough to believe that he is there on merit alone. However, what he ends up getting himself involved in might cost him much more than the game-set-match. His presence is also inexplicable to authorities, as he is a washed-up tennis player suddenly landing in Nebraska, at the same time that a string of robberies appears to be hunting a big-money prize. The question is, will Wally’s smart aleck, streetwise personality get him out of every tight squeeze, and possibly even earn him the payday that his passion for tennis never delivered?
The writing is dense and carefully designed, with the casual comfort of an author with full command of the English language – bending syntax, meaning and the boundaries of dialogue to impressive and amusing heights. The conversation-intensive novel moves quickly, and requires constant focus from a reader in order not to get lost in the mix of quirky characters and unexpected scene cuts.
However, some of the writing does appear a bit too busy, as though the author was moving in too many different directions with too many characters, wanting to make the novel eccentric, but not necessarily succinct. The ending leaves something to be desired, but generally, for anyone who loves tennis, and highly skilled storytelling, Rubber Match will do anything but disappoint.