Curves of Pursuit


by Anatole Broyard

Books of the Times

Some men express in sport feelings they wouldn't dare bring out in life, or even in love -- feelings about grace, trust and dependence, for example. The spirit of teamwork is their flirtation with the fact of love. In football, the pat on the butt after a beautiful play is a macho translation of tenderness and gratitude.

This is the kind of thing Thomas Farber is suggesting in Curves of Pursuit, a first novel that is venturesome to an almost foolhardy degree. Mr. Farber has limbered up with several published collections of short stories and now he seems to be ready to go all out. As one of the epigraphs to his book, he quotes this line from The Physics of Ball Games by C.B. Daish: "Speaking generally, all athletes are best left unaware of the exact nature of their movements."

But as any athlete knows, this is true only when you're playing at your peak. When the play doesn't click, you begin to pry, you start questioning your style. That's what Curves of Pursuit is: a questioning of its narrator's style in his relation to his wife and to his brother, who is all the family he has. Though they are very close, he and his brother can hardly talk to each other. When they do, it's in bits and pieces of foreign languages. The brother was once a promising linguist and it was then that they began the process of trying to lose or dissolve their anxiety by translating it.

Throwing passes with a football has always been their favorite way of communicating with each other, even after they are pretty middle-aged. As the narrator points out, the passer must lead his receiver; he must throw not to where the receiver is, but to where he will be, to his future, so to speak. And the receiver trusts the passer to get the ball to him at the right time, in the right place. The entire process is a metaphor for pattern, anticipation and "goals."

Mr. Farber's other epigraph for Curves of Pursuit is a definition for the phrase he has taken for his title. According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, a curve of pursuit is "a curve described by a point moving always directly toward or from a second point that is in itself moving according to some law." That is how the narrator sees his relation to both his brother and his wife.

One of the questions he has to answer in his marriage is how can a team have two quarterbacks? His wife, after all, is not satisfied to be a mere receiver. They, too, play football together and she keeps saying "throw harder," urging him not to scale himself down to some obsolete notion of femininity. Yet the ball sprains her fingers: There must be some other way to "make a pass" at her, one that turns her femininity to advantage.

In school, when he was a quarterback, the narrator became interested in the theory of spirals. He grew so enraptured with reading about this that he quite the team in order to take more time for research. Now he's at the same point in his marriage, asking himself why some forms of turbulence in physics are expressed in spirals. His wife, he realizes, is one receiver who doesn't know how to lead. How, for example, do you connect with someone who asks "Do you like my shadow?"

"I've always loved you," his wife says to their cat as he stands by, a not-so-innocent bystander. Is love, we wonder, a yearning for simplicity? But this, of course, leads to the terrible question, "What is simplicity?" When someone tortures and murders their cat and the narrator calls the police, the officer who responds says "We don't have the resources to investigate a dead cat." So much for simplicity.

For some people, divorce is the first time they are truly alone. When his wife leaves him, the knowledge of aloneness is so painful that the narrator takes his football out onto the Golden Gate Bridge and throws what he thinks of as his last pass. He's Joe Namath with his knees gone, Johnny Unitas with a used up arm. Or maybe just himself with his broken heart.

That's not the end of the book, though. Curves of Pursuit is worrying, but not depressing. It's one those new novels whose structure appeals not only to your sense of order, but to your sense of humor. We're learning that there's humor even in structures. Like the book's themes, it's structure is a continual surprise of perspective. It's filled, for example, with free-floating flashbacks. But just when you're thinking that the author is "throwing away" the past, that there's not receiver open, you discover that there is a method in it, that he's setting you up for another play. Some of his chapters are head fakes, some are probes, some run interference for others.

This is one of the virtues of our best new fiction: The unexpected ways in which the author serves up his material to you. You have to keep adjusting, keep re-focusing, until you almost forget who you are and what you think in order to concentrate on what the author wants you to do. He leads you and throws to that self of yours that doesn't yet exist. When it works, when you make the catch, it's a beautiful feeling of everything coming together in space and time -- and yes, even in a kind of love.