Book Review - Race, class, and basketball collide in Chris Leslie-Hynan's 'Ride Around Shining'
Chris Leslie-Hynan exposes the racism that exists within the world of professional sports
Though the NBA season is over and the Golden State Warriors were crowned champions, many Atlantans are still bitterly lick their wounds after losing the Eastern Conference. It wouldn’t be completely ludicrous to note that basketball fans— at least the serious ones, anyway— live vicariously through their favorite players. However, in his debut novel Ride Around Shining, Portland author Chris Leslie-Hynan uses basketball and the luxurious lifestyle that usually accompanies its players to discuss race and class. Hynan developed the idea of basketball as a platform on which to discuss the not so discussable through his own childhood experiences. “Growing up in rural and mostly white Wisconsin, my first notions of black culture came through watching basketball” Hynan commented.
The story is narrated through the eyes of Jess, an “aimless white guy,” who is attempting to escape the terrible fate that is the white American middles class (sarcasm intended). By lying about his background, Jess is able to snag a job as a chauffeur for Calyph West, a black player for the Portland Trail Blazers, and his white wife, Antonia. Done away with the, “sensible lack of gaudiness, the supermarket steak, and the football on the weekends,” that plagues the middle class (sarcasm again intended), Jess now finds himself thrust into the community of black basketball players—a world of gated neighborhoods and soft gravel driveways that cushion the tires of glossy Jaguars. A world of frosty white ice sculptures and frosty white trophy wives. Hooked on the reflective glory that comes from brushing shoulders with the young and rich, Jess strives to make himself indispensable to the West family, and more importantly, to Calyph. He causes Calyph to have a season-ending knee injury and contributes to the couple’s estrangement all so that he can position himself “as their own perverse savior”- a savior who Calyph would never dream of firing and whose future is intertwined with that of the West family.
Though the means Jess uses to stay in Calyph’s life are extreme, he is ultimately doing what all we sports fans do—he’s living vicariously through his favorite player. By staying close to a highly successful Calyph and other “young and limited gods”, Jess is attempting to save himself from- what Hynan calls- “his own white strangeness” and his current standing in the cookie-cutter middle class. But as Jess’s relationship with Calyph warps from one of admiration to one of envy, obsession, and spite, you can’t help but wonder if Jess’s fixation on staying in the world of gated communities and soft gravel driveways has just as much to do with skin color as it does with monetary wealth. After all, the stinging irony of being the white man who totes around his prosperous black employer is not lost on Jess. By making sure that Calyph is dependent on him, Jess could be looking to satisfy an innate sense of white superiority. “There is a power that comes from servitude, and Jess feels that very intensely”, Hynan says. Hynan also points out that as the true intention(s) behind Jess’s actions (and somewhat sadism) unravel throughout the novel, he must come to “acknowledge the worst parts of himself”, and the reader is forced to see how “this legacy of racism”- elusive, yet permeating- dictates the characters in the book.
Truthfully, Hynan’s novel contains several brutally blunt moments that will make readers wince. However, it is this same unwavering, candid language about race and class that captures your attention and warrants all the critical praise that Ride Around Shining has received thus far.
Ride Around Shining by Chris Leslie- Hynan. HarperCollins. $14.99. 240 pp.