Undercard is the debut novel by David Albertyn, and sports and literature intersect in the book as they do in Albertyn's life—he's been a competitive tennis player and coach since 2005. In this recommended reading list, Albertyn recommends other books that tell compelling stories (fictional and otherwise) of sports and people who play them.
I wanted Undercard to have all the aspects of a great sports story, within the context of a great thriller. I wanted the outcome of a sports event to be integral to the outcome of a criminal plot. I wanted my four principal characters to be athletes, current or former, and the specific sport they each compete in helps define and develop who they come to be. I wanted a novel that was as riveting as the most furious boxing match, and as blood-thumping as the most daring revenge tale—one compounded on top of the other.
In the eight books listed below, story is given equal value and investment as the sports they deal with. Societal issues are too. These Canadian writers use stories about sports to engage with issues pertaining to identity, race, immigration, discrimination, poverty, and loss, among others. All of them document struggle. Struggle against injustice, struggle to understand one’s self, struggle for a better life, and of course, the struggle to win.
Cataract City, by Craig Davidson
This novel is packed with sports: pro wrestling, boxing, basketball, and dog racing. But always a version of each sport that is removed from the mainstream, from the height sports can attain, by a seemingly endless distance. There are moments of elation, wonder, and achievement, the great moments sports can offer, captured beautifully but briefly. More often than not, the tough working-class manifestations of these sports are infused with sadness and menace, remorse and violence. A suspenseful and gritty journey through two men’s lives and the sports that shape them and their relationship.
Tessa and Scott, by Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir, and Steve Milton
The struggle that hits the hardest in this book is over chronic injury. You can practically feel the pain of Tessa Virtue as you read about her pushing through agony in her shins and calves, practice after practice, tournament after tournament, for years on end, to the point that you’re thinking, “Just stop already! Please take a rest.” But it’s because of that pain, because of the innovations Tessa and Scott come up with to work around it, because of the poise, grit and determination they show to be successful in spite of it, that make the climax so jubilant and exhilarating, as if it is us tasting gold at the Olympics.
The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, A Father’s Life, by Jael Ealey Richardson
Though this is a memoir, it reads like a mystery, cutting between past and present, a daughter on the trail of her father’s history, hoping to find answers that will illuminate her own place in the world. The thrills of Richardson father’s football prowess are juxtaposed with continuous reminders that if it were not for that prowess her life would be very different. By her father being so successful in football as a quarterback, and because of the discrimination of the NFL, his playing in the CFL determined that Jael would be Canadian, contributing to so many of the differences between her experiences and her parents’ American upbringing.
The Bone Cage, by Angie Abdou
Amateur sports are explored in this novel through the journeys of a swimmer and a wrestler in the lead-up to an Olympic Games. On display is the incredible level of sustained effort and discipline required to be successful in an amateur sport, on par with any professional sport, and yet, barring gold at the Olympics, or at least a medal, the material rewards are paltry. It is in the details of training and competing, the relentless tension and near-constant exhaustion, that Abdou captures how hard it is to separate oneself from the pack, made more apparent in her suspenseful and riveting scenes of competition.
The Riot at Christie Pits, by Cyril Levitt and William Shaffir
This book about a Toronto event in 1933 was originally published in 1987, but in 2018 a new edition was released with a new foreword and postscript, timely in a political and cultural climate that has seen xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia spike across the Western world in recent years. The book is an academic text, but it’s subject is a fascinating story, worlds colliding to conclude, of all things, a softball game: the old, British-dominated Toronto and the new, multicultural, immigrant-comprised Toronto battling each other for hours in the largest race riot in the city’s history.
The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill
In this novel, distance running and running from persecution and deportation go hand in hand. Keita Ali’s ambition to be a champion marathoner serves him well as an illegal immigrant in a country on the hunt for people like him. Here is running as pure joy, up hills, on peaks, along shorelines, a path to connect mind, body, and soul to the natural world, a love of running intrinsic to the book; and yet here also is running as escape, as flight for the hunted, necessary, tense, terrifying. To attain sports success and his freedom, Keita has only one option: run fast.
Inside Fighter: Dave Brown’s Remarkable Stories of Canadian Boxing, by Tom Henry
One of the things I found in my research into boxing for Undercard is how often fighters have the most unbelievable lives. It’s remarkable. Stories that no writer could come up with, or if they could, their editors would complain that they’re too implausible. This is a book of these sorts of stories, intriguing not only in their own right but for their insights into Canadian history too. Another of the things that makes boxing unique is its deep roots as an amateur and professional sport in modern times. You would be hard pressed to find detailed accounts of a contest in another sport from the eighteenth century (if the sport even existed then), while boxing already had firmly established rules and champions. Some of the most enjoyable tidbits in this book detail boxing’s rich history in a Canadian context: “In 1866, two BC boxers participated in one of the longest matches in Canadian prizefighting history … for the championship of Vancouver Island on a rocky shelf on the shores of Pedder Bay.” Reading this, it’s easy to see how there have been so many great boxing novels and films.
Chuvalo: A Fighter’s Life: The Story of Boxing’s Last Great Gladiator, by George Chuvalo, Murray Grieg
Another thing I found in my boxing research is the prevalence of extreme poverty in so many fighters’ backgrounds, a level of destitution beyond anything I have heard of in other sports—which is saying something. As Chuvalo writes, “you have to know real poverty to want to earn your living as a fighter.” Struggle doesn’t capture the kind of battles Chuvalo had in and out the ring, a host of serious issues tackled through his life story. Though a gut-wrenching read, there are thrilling descriptions of famous fights, and inspiration to be had in using the stories of one’s own tragedies to help others, the memoir a testament to what the human body and spirit can endure.
When Tyron Shaw returns to his hometown of Las Vegas after eleven years in the Marines, he’s surprised to discover that two of his best friends from childhood are all anyone is talking about: Antoine Deco, three years out of prison, hasn’t lost a boxing match since his release, and tonight is fighting in the undercard to the fight of the decade; and Keenan Quinn, a police officer who killed an unarmed teenager and escaped punishment from the courts, is the subject of a protest tomorrow morning.
Tyron has trouble reconciling either story with his memory of these men, and the situation escalates when he runs into the love of his life, Naomi Wilks, a retired WNBA player, basketball coach, and estranged wife of Keenan. As Tyron reconnects with his old community, he will learn over the next twenty-four hours that much has changed since he left Las Vegas . . . and there is much more that he never understood.
The Reef, an aquarium-themed casino and the hottest resort on the Strip, is the backdrop for this bullet-paced narrative, where loyalty to one’s friends, one’s family, and one’s community are ever at odds, and every choice has deadly repercussions.
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