I just finished reading Abraham Verghese’s memoir The Tennis Partner. Verghese, a professor of medicine at Stanford University who lives in Palo Alto (gotta give PA its reps) is more famous for his novel Cutting for Stone, which was published in 2009 and is ranked #2 on the New York Times trade paperback fiction list.
The Tennis Partner, originally published in 1998, but reissued in 2009, tells the story of the friendship between Verghese and David Smith, a recovering drug addict. Verghese’s success as a doctor of internal medicine at the Texas Tech School of Medicine in El Paso belies his struggle to adjust to his new living situation after he separates from his wife, moves out and sees less and less of his two sons. David is an Australian intern under Verghese, who used to play tennis on the pro tour. A friendship blossoms over therapeutic sessions of tennis between Verghese and Smith, which becomes a twice-a-week ritual. As the story progresses, the author reveals how David’s fluidity and confidence while playing tennis doesn’t translate well to his off court endeavors, as we learn that David is a recovering cocaine addict. The story is split into three sections: the budding friendship, the friendship once Verghese learns that David is a recovering addict, and the struggles once David relapses.
A Manly Friendship:
The Tennis Partner was so appealing to me because it tells the (true) story of a friendship between two men. I find stories centered around male friendships endless fascinating, a common vein that also offers something unique in every book. I love following the trajectory of these friendships across their highs (a transcendent game of tennis) and lows (Verghese discovering that David relapsed) and the ensuing maturation or discovery of identity. Here are some more great books centered around male friendships or guys finding their identity: Kiterunner, City of Thieves, This Boy’s Life, Townie.
The jarring and tragic ending to Tennis Partner makes the book that much more powerful. Verghese does an excellent job of balancing his analysis of David from a clinical and emotional perspective. Verghese’s medical training causes him to constantly analyze people’s bodies and ponder whether they have certain illnesses or diseases, and this knowledge picks up on David’s ominous physical tics, like a brief twitch of the face or the sallowness of his skin. Verghese also writes honestly about his analysis of David as a friend, free of any doctor jargon.
Verghese also does a nice job of balancing analysis with intentional ambiguity. He does dive deep into their friendship and ponder the nature of David’s fragile psyche, but doesn’t pretend to know David any more than he actually does.
Lastly this book appealed to my inner sports fan for its gorgeous descriptions of the games played between Abraham and David. Here is a passage written as Abraham reflects on his tennis games with David after learning that David relapsed and was being sent to rehab.
My friendship with David, during its inception, and during the heady period when our lives revolved so much around each other, had held out the promise of leading somewhere, to something extraordinary, some vital epiphany-what, precisely, I couldn’t be sure of. Still, that was how it felt-magical, special. And that was enough; that was reason to keep going.
Playing tennis seemed to express this, as if it were a beautiful experiment we two had created out of thin air. The uniforms were simple, the equipment rudimentary, but in our rat-a-tat volleying at the net, in our mastery of spin, in the rallies, in the way the rackets functioned as extensions of our bodies, in the way we came to know each other’s tics and idiosyncrasies, in the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in spance, we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricous. [...] Each time we played, this feeling of restoring order, of mastery, was awakened.
The inner sports romantic inside of me lives for this sort of writing, the greater significance that the game of tennis holds for Abraham and David. Even as the world as they know it comes crashing down around them, Abe and David will always have their secret tennis court, a “magical” place where Abraham’s marital woes and David’s dark past don’t exist. The tennis court allows them to escape to a place where they have a sense of control and power in a “world that was fickle and capricious.”