Golf Dreams by John Updike - review by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

The Game which Demands a Saintly Letting Go

Golf Dreams


Hamish Hamilton 201pp £13.99 order from our bookshop

It’s hard to underestimate how rebarbative golf is to the non-golfist. Not as catatonically boring as chess is to the non-chessist, but close behind. I once showed the typescript of a novel to a friend whose broadest sympathy can normally be relied upon at this vulnerable literary moment. My book happened to open on the golf course, and the location seemed relevant to the psychodynamics: I was aiming to set a weird human tenderness against the stuffy formality of the game. ‘It got off to rather a slow start,’ my friend reported, ‘because of all the bloody golf.’

You can see what enrages the non-golfist (a golfist, as opposed to a golfer, is anyone whose life has been, even once, long in the past, touched by the sudden beauties of the game). There’s the false, tailored landscape; the enormous pauses between brief and seemingly similar pieces of action; the wanky, transparently Freudian object of propelling a little ball long distances into a tiny hole (Updike has a poem about showering players whose ‘genitals/ hang dead as practice balls’); and the cloney nerdishness of the players. They wear terrible clothes; they seem to escape the general rule, clung to by sportists, that each sport throws up at least one player of high natural intelligence (we are thinking Gullit, not Gascoigne); and when they try to show ‘character’ – ie submit to marketing devices – they make fools of themselves. Look at Greg Norman: nice enough fellow by all accounts, but a complete wally when it comes to that ‘White Shark’ sobriquet and hat trim. A piece of hubris just made for Nick Faldo at Augusta.

Yet the game, as literary golfists keep trying to explain, has much to offer the non-golfist reader. There is the ambiguity of the setting, poised between rus in urbe and urbs in rure. There is the social mix of the players, wider than non-golfists imagine (though admittedly not that wide). There is the non-combatant clubhouse world to point up the on-course drama. Finally, there is the nature and manner of the game as it appears to the average player. Most of the time it is a refuse tip of acknowledged imperfections, wrist-wrenching frustrations, and demonic self-reproach; then, every so often, by fortuitously slipping into the correct bodily rotations, a player may hit a shot so purely as to not even feel it, a shot whose reality matches exactly all those gaudy imaginings which go under the posh name of intention. There is something transcendent about this moment, a sense of escape from a slurry of imperfection into a truer, more beautiful world.

You can see the game’s attraction for John Updike: as a writer, he is essentially urban, essentially social, essentially religious. And on top of this, he loves all the bloody golf. He’s been playing it for the last forty years (from a respectable 18 handicap) and writing about it for as long. Golf Dreams contains almost everything he has published on the subject, and despite the inevitable bittiness and repetition, conveys an authentic wholeness of experience. Updike’s golf world is that of the social foursome playing for small bets on lesser New England courses. It is a democratic, inclusive place, where men (his partners are always men, except for a brief comic interlude of night-time crazy golf) admit and share their hopes and failings, where attempts at heroism and nobility are quietly undermined by ropey technique, fraying temperament and ageing muscle tissue. This is not a world of the exclusive country club, of what-Arnold-Palmer-told-me, or of I-was- there-when. Updike is more interested in describing the local peculiarities and irritability of his playing partners; like most golfists, he follows the big tournaments on the box. He was once invited to be a marshal at the US Open at Brookline, and found himself watching the big names with small-boy awe. In his own, more workaday golfing world, players tend to carry their own clubs: on the rare occasions they are obliged to employ a caddie, they are generally humiliated, insulted and cheated. Indeed, the caddie may be the point on the human spectrum where Updike’s extensive imaginative sympathy finally begins to run out.

‘Golf converts oddly well into words’, Updike notes at one point. Why is this? Partly because a round of golf is long and eventful enough to throw up anecdotes (there can’t be too many stories about a sixty-metre hurdles race); partly because the game is a pressing examination of human temperament; partly – mainly – because most golf consists of failing in one way or another. Even players on top of the leader-board come off the course lamenting that their 66 could have been a 65 or even a 64 if it hadn’t been for underclubbing at the 13th or whatever. (When they say, ‘I played pretty much perfect golf, Steve,’ they seem monsters of vanity, but such comments are probably as rare as such feelings.) And as with the rest of literature, so with golf writing: happiness writes white. The very occasional moments of perfection, of result matching intention, of transcendence and ecstasy, tend to be noted rather than examined. It is disaster which excites the pen. Wodehouse has the Oldest Member watching a golfer ‘zigzagging about the fairway like a liner pursued by submarines. Two others were digging for buried treasure, unless – it was too far to be certain – they are killing snakes.’ For Wodehouse, the incomparable simile; for Updike, the cumulative trill of exact phrases as he catalogues what can go wrong:

 … the duck hook, the banana slice, the topped dribble, the no-explode explosion shot, the arboreal ricochet, the sky ball, the majestic OB, the pond-side scuff-and-splash, the deep-grass squirt, the cart-path shank, the skull, the fat hit, the stubbed putt …

Despite all this, Updike is, as he told celebrants at the hundredth anniversary of USGA, ‘curiously, disproportionately, undeservedly happy on a golf course’. Contributory factors include the ‘out-of-doors simplicity at the heart of golfing bliss’ (a simplicity menaced by golf carts, professionalism, course overpopulation and unnecessary technological advances); the fairway camaraderie of an established foursome (‘Many men are more faithful to their golf partners than to their wives, and have stuck with them longer’); and the glimpses of otherworldly perfection the game affords. To non-golfists the propinquity of those two short words with homophonic beginnings, golf and God (or Golf and god), may appear absurd: what further distance could there be than that between suburban spike-footed turf-scuffers in naff outfits and the austere silences of the divine? Not so, to judge from the eye and typewriter (is it too cute to want the machine to be a golfball?) of John Updike. Both his fiction and non-fiction hint that golfing bliss takes us beyond the terrestrial. Technically, the game demands of a player what Updike calls ‘that saintly letting go’; elsewhere, he concludes that ‘It is of games the most mysterious, the least earthbound, the one wherein the wall between us and the supernatural is rubbed thinnest.’ Towards the end of the Rabbit quartet, Harry Angstrom, delving his way round a Florida course with three fellow retirees, is allowed by his creator to glimpse in the game what his companions ignore: ‘infinity, an opportunity for infinite improvement’. This improvement is not just a matter of lowering your handicap. Perhaps the second word in the title of Golf Dreams plays not just as a noun but also as a verb. The Golf-God sits at his prayer wheel contemplating the infinite, while down below his acolytes swivel and hack, each urging a dimpled Maxfli to soar higher than their grimy souls.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter