Fore, right! The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to A Ruinous Sport, by Carl Hiaasen

(Note:  In honor of the start of spring–a cruel annual hoax here in the state of Michigan–and the upcoming golf season, I’m reposting a review written for the now-defunct earlier version of this blog.)

Carl Hiaasen is usually a pretty funny guy. It’s hard to sustain humor at book length, but through a number of novels about South Florida, Hiaasen has shown a knack for capturing the fetid sleaziness and weird code of individuality that seems to characterize the area. I first listened to one of his novels—I think it was Skin Tight—maybe ten years ago. I liked it, and in subsequent fictional efforts Hiaasen has displayed the kind of satiric wit that, if not exactly subtle, still crackles with the triumph of the rare sane members of the human community over the world’s (in a South Florida microcosm), ahem, assholes. Hey, The Colbert Report isn’t subtle either, but its producers understand that in a world of phantom WMDs, political mendacity (yes, Big Daddy, it has soaked into humanity deeper than ever), and financial scams that have initiated the great economic meltdown (and, who knows, maybe The Rapture—now there’s something I’d really like to see; I’m not a believer, but, you know, maybe we can just create it, like a Cecil B. DeMille shoot gone horribly wrong—people running aflame off into the arms of Sarah Palin in the Last Frontier), truthiness is hilarious.

But . . .

In Hiaasen’s latest audiobook, The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport (2008, Random House), I have to say, in the words of W.S. Gilbert (a guy who really did know funny when he saw it) referring to William Shakespeare, “I don’t find him rollicking.”  Gilbert might not have said that precisely, but it’s close.

The book tells the story of Hiaasen’s return to the sport of golf after a 30-year-or-so layoff. Since he wasn’t much of a golfer in his earlier incarnation, the concept is funny enough in itself if you happen to be a golfer. And that’s pretty much the disclaiming refrain for this book. It has its moments, but only if you happen to be a golfer, or, even better, a hack golfer, which most committed golfers are. I am a golfer, and I can relate to some of the fun stuff in Hiaasen’s book.  Like Hiaasen, I, too, once let a golf cart get away from me so that it rolled into (in my case) a river. One of my golf companions still regales me with this charming anecdote, and probably will continue to do so until I one day bury my gap wedge into the back of his skull.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah, “If you’re a golfer.” Unfortunately, if you’re not a golfer or reformed golfer, there’s not much in this book for you. I mean, Hiaasen tries admirably to turn The Downhill Lie into a sort of father-son bonding-fest that might appeal to the more sentimental listener, and the psychic incompatibility of being a writer and a golfer is handled pretty well (hint: it’s all about performance anxiety, which Hiaasen has a nearly debilitating case of, at least on the course). However, although your average golfer is certainly delusional, the grudging “Nice shot” to a competitor is about as sentimental as you’re likely to get from him or her.

Speaking of your average golfer, Hiaasen succeeds in articulating the game’s frustrating—more like infuriating—fickleness.  All glory is fleeting, indeed, but does it have to flee from one shot to the next? One moment the planets align and a career five-iron shot drops the ball two feet from the pin 180 yards from where you are posing like a hood ornament. On the very next full shot, your divot travels farther than the ball.  No kidding. This has happened to me, more than I care to recall. On the other hand, given the inherent comedy in golf, The Downhill Lie isn’t all that funny. Even with a supporting cast that includes golf analyst David Feherty and sportswriter Mike Lupika, the book never really engages the listener.

Part of the book’s problem could be the narration, which is done by Hiaasen himself. I guess I’ve heard a couple of books for which the authors have successfully recited their own prose, but I can’t think of one at the moment. Usually it seems to me to be a bad idea. Hiaasen sounds like he’s doing no more than just reading it out loud—no cadence or rhythm, no real feel for the material, which makes no sense, of course because he should know the material better than anyone.  Yet, there it is.

If I were scoring this book like a round of golf against a par of, oh, 72, on a relatively simple course—say with a slope of 126 or so—and with Hiaasen’s handicap of 18 or thereabouts, I’d give it about a 97.


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