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In his earlier work, David Shields came across as a fairly traditional storyteller. Even Dead Languages, his fictional rumination on a stutterer's tongue-tied existence, was essentially a coming-of-age story. But he began to show his true colors with Remote, a fractured, full-body immersion in media culture. This deeply amusing work of nonfiction revealed the author to be a neurotic, navel-gazing cousin of Nicholson Baker. Now comes Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, whose putative topic--professional basketball--would seem to return Shields to his extroverted roots. (His first novel, in fact, revolved around a college basketball player.) Yet this is ultimately as postmodernist a work as its predecessor, and it takes us not only into the author's heart but his boudoir. Black Planet's fusion of public spectacle with private mortification makes it his funniest book to date.
A word of explanation: technically speaking, Black Planet is a chronicle of the Seattle SuperSonics during the 1994-1995 season. Since the team blew its shot at the playoffs, there's no chance for an uplifting grand finale. Yet Shields had a different sort of hoop dream in mind from the very beginning. "The NBA," he writes, "is a place where, without ever acknowledging it--and because it's never acknowledged, it's that much more potent and telling--white fans and black players enact and quietly explode virtually every racial issue and tension in the culture at large. Race, the league's taboo topic, is the league's true subject." It's the author's true subject, too, and he goes at it from every angle--attending games, recording call-in radio shows, and making some abortive attempts to cozy up to the players. Point guard Gary Payton is his true Penelope. Why? Well, his motormouth style does suggest an "indivisibility... of playing and talking, of life and language." But more to the point, he offers a handy tabula rasa for Shields's fantasy life, a trash-talking personification of bad behavior: "Which is why, in Seattle the Good, I so love Gary Payton. He's not really bad, he's only pretend-bad--I know that--but he allows me to fantasize about being bad."
If Shields were simply slapping society on the wrist for its half-submerged racism, Black Planet would wear out its welcome in the first quarter. But he's consistently hardest on himself, so the book becomes not only a social critique but a critique of social critiques, cutting the ground from under itself in an infinite and entertaining loop-the-loop. Shields may not be the first writer to transform a fan's notes into literary gold--Frederick Exley beat him to the punch--but he's the most rigorously intelligent one in a long, long time. Swish! --James Marcus [via]