By Charles Rammelkamp
Michael Chin’s Distance Traveled is a touching series of vignettes – flash pieces, meditations – that ultimately address, in an understated way, a first-love break-up between a man and a woman, and in measuring the distance that that relationship travels, the stories also shine a light on the fantasies and obsessions that can dominate us all our lives, out of which we sometimes (often) grow – or travel beyond.
Most of the nineteen stories that make up Distance Traveled involve the narrator and his childhood buddy Vinnie, growing up in a town in upstate New York (Chin grew up in Utica), obsessively following NBA teams in the context of their turbulent junior high school lives. But the first two (“History” and “I Believed in Magic”) and the last two (“Sea Level” and “Hall of Fame”) that frame the collection are told when the narrator is well into his thirties. While also couching larger issues in terms of basketball, they address the heartbreak and disillusionment that inevitably come with adulthood. The chunk of fifteen stories in between set us up for all the real-life joy and misery that the game of basketball involves for the fans who follow the teams and the players, who learn to refer to teams in terms of “we” and “our” and “us.”
For certain basketball fans, too, the period of Chin’s fandom as a teenager evokes real nostalgia for the game, its drama and melodrama, as it was played in the last decade of the twentieth century, with “Magic” and “Larry” and “Michael” and “Shaq” and “Kobe” and all the others we first-named as if we knew them. There are stories about Patrick Ewing and Jeff Van Gundy, Muggsy Bogues and Latrell Sprewell, all with grave moral applications to the lives of teenage boys. And George Mikan? Does that name ring a bell?
Indeed, Chin’s collection provides a fresh take on the old saw that sports is a metaphor for life. As the narrator notes in “The New York Knicks, 1994,” in which the beloved home team (“the Knicks – the team based Downstate, but the jersey said New York, no City, so we could still claim them.”) loses the championship in the seventh game of the finals to the Houston Rockets: “And I discovered that magical thing about the game. That win or lose it went on. No permanent victories or defeats, just the ones you let stick to you, the ones that rolled off.”
But while this collection may ultimately be about the narrator and Claudia, the girl who leaves him for another guy, it’s the narrator and his buddy Vinnie as young teens who really touch the reader’s heart. The narrator and Vinnie are obsessed with basketball. It’s the ultimate basis of their friendship; it’s what they bond over, and not just the hero-worship. They admire the acrobatics, the strategy, the work ethic. They learn about the point spread from the narrator’s father and apply the principle to their nascent love lives. They bond over the triangle offense, brainchild of Phil Jackson. As Knick fans, they loathe Reggie Miller, the Indiana Pacers’ three-point artist (“Everybody Hates Reggie Miller”). And yet, reflecting on Miller’s childhood when he wore leg braces because his hips were out of place, and all the obstacles the future star would have to overcome, the narrator observes that it’s easier to be a victim – a role Miller did not adopt – than to be a villain. (In an act of will, the narrator resists “adding fucking before or between Reggie and Miller.”) The villain, after all, is a celebrity, part of the sports pantheon of gods. Think Loki. Think Beelzebub.
Possibly the most amusing and endearing instance of the boys’ innocence comes in the story, “A Piece of the Man,” which focuses on Dennis Rodman. You remember Dennis, the original American diplomat to visit Kim Jong Un, years before Donald Trump. “Tattoos and neon hair. Number ninety-one because those were the first two digits people dial in case of emergency.” The boys are trading sports cards. The narrator offers Vinnie a Glen Rice rookie card and a Fleer Scottie Pippen for Vinnie’s Rodman card. “I already knew he’d say no.” While they dicker over the cards, the narrator tells Vinnie that Rodman had dated Madonna. “You think he kissed her?” Vinnie asks innocently. The narrator tells him the truth about Dennis Rodman and Madonna. “Vinnie was at that fulcrum age, both naïve and instinctually inclined to want to put his dick in anything that moved.” It’s almost as if the narrator has had to tell Vinnie there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.
A natural storyteller, Chin’s narrative voice is wise and confidential, unafraid to acknowledge vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He sucks you in with his casual references to the dysfunctional family life that basketball seemingly saves him from. But there’s not a trace of self-pity in Distances Traveled. Just as Reggie Miller had to fight for everything he had, the narrator confides, “I can relate. We all think we can, right? It’s easy to play the victim.” Chin, too, refuses to play the victim. Instead, he simply moves on – “that magical thing about the game.” Win or lose, life just goes on.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.