By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
By Nicola Keegan
Knopf. 305 pp. $25.95
Nicola Keegan's novel about a Kansas girl who swims her way to the Seoul Olympics sounds drearily good-natured and uplifting, but if that's what you're after, you should paddle back to the shallow end. This isn't like one of those sentimental biopics that give everybody a chance to go to the bathroom between the big races. Yes, the young heroine shatters records (and bones) and collects enough gold medals to fill a pirate's treasure chest, but she also discovers that beating a husky East German with a 5 o'clock shadow is easier than competing against hopelessness and death.
That tension between exuberance and despair is what gives this novel such reckless buoyancy. It's there on the very first page, when Pip is a "problematic infant" at the pool with her family. Her nervous father dips her into the water and off she goes, to everyone's amazement. "All I know is that when I kick, it moves me," she says, "so I kick again, liberated from my fleshly prison of gravity. I am as I was, churning in deep archaic memory, naked, filled with free-floating fatness, the world murmuring outside with sweet deafened sounds that lull. I pop up, open my eyes; I learn to glide."
It's a wonderful opening -- comic and celebratory, full of the narrator's weird blend of goofiness and intelligence -- but learning to glide turns out to be a lifelong process in some very rough waters, including a pummeling series of tragedies. Pip's family is a slow-moving disaster: One sister is dying of Hodgkin's disease, another is killing herself with heroin and a third is rejecting this world for Christ. What's worse, they're verbal pugilists, knocking one another around with wicked sarcasm and gallows humor. Their mother sinks deeper into agoraphobia while "the house takes on shadows that hold."
It's no wonder that by the time Pip is 8, she's already flipping erratically from depression to delight. "Life is quiet and dusty and lonesome and I'm sick of it already," she says, but the pool offers relief: "I'm saturated in a deep, peaceful, perfectly entitled, one hundred percent natural love of life and all life's things."
Keegan has a keen sense of how different it is to be a female athletic prodigy, particularly in the 1970s. Any boy who swam like this would be courted by coaches, adored by peers. But at 6 feet -- and growing! -- Pip is a middle-school freak, a "universally unpopular . . . sloppy-shouldered, small-breasted, strong-jawed, tall girl" whose strict Catholic school can't begin to nurture her. Much of the dark comedy here involves Pip's efforts to avoid the horrors at home, get the instruction she needs in the pool and figure out why she doesn't fit in with anyone. "My body is still refusing to accept the natural curse that unites all women, even nuns," she says. "I check every day, am still a girl. Worry gnaws at my innards."
The success of this marvelous novel floats on that voice, ripe with adolescent wit and angst. ("It annoys me to have to breathe, so I don't.") For all its family dysfunction, international travel and athletic record-breaking, "Swimming" remains an unusually interior novel, contained entirely in Pip's discordant head. Even the dialogue is mediated by her voice, rendered only in italics, no quotation marks, sometimes slipping into shorthand and ellipses. This can feel a bit claustrophobic, as though we're missing a lot of what's happening outside her narrow attention. Moscow, Paris, Stanford University and other colorful locales are hard to see in much detail through the scrim of Pip's self-absorption, but if you've spent time around precocious teenagers (or been one), you'll recognize how true this sounds.
And in any case, as a narrator Pip displays the same energy she shows as a preternaturally gifted athlete. This is a glimpse into the rarefied realm of Mount Olympus with the laurels stripped away -- the unending exhaustion and the strange existence of living in a body so finely tuned that a single doughnut can jam the gears and send everything spiraling out of control.
You don't have to be a swimmer to respond to this story; you don't even have to be into sports (heck, I spent all of high school PE hiding in the marching band and I loved this book). Her description of the training regimen that begins once the right people become aware of her talent is completely absorbing. She moves into an alien world of single-minded super-coaches, chiropractors, nutritionists, herbalists, psychologists, hypnotists, reporters and media consultants. "Being an Olympian," she says with her typical deflating humor, "is like striding around an important cakewalk naked while everyone else is in their Sunday best."
And, as it must, the book delivers some knockout scenes at the Olympics, enriched by Pip's quirky humor about her competitors and the media's inanity. What's most striking, though, are those moments of gold medal-winning victory. There's no trumpet-blowing triumphalism and no canned modesty either; instead, Pip's voice rises to the limits of articulation when she's overwhelmed by "a love of the lonesomeness of the lane, a love of the lonesomeness of the empty pool, a love of the lonesomeness of spent energy and hot pain, a love of all the things we had to do to get here. . . . I whoop a crazy gut whoop and deep love makes them whoop with me as life advances forward and our whoops catch and mingle together in the thick chlorine air."
But wouldn't you know it, Olympic goddesses have troubles just like us mortals. "I'm still the same," Pip says, "tall, annoyed, loveless, and lonesome in a way I can't explain."
It's a sign of Keegan's discipline that she doesn't allow Pip's record-breaking victories to solve or overshadow her spiritual anxieties, her unresolved conflicts with loved ones, living and dead. Long after the Olympic villages are dismantled and her 12 gold medals are stored away, the problem of how to live remains. And that race, Pip discovers, is more grueling than anything she's faced in the pool.
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