The Tennis Partner

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9780060174057: The Tennis Partner

In My Own Country, named one of the five best books of 1994 by Time magazine, Abraham Verghese ventured into the valley of the Smokey Mountains, where he bore witness to the arrival of AIDS in a town that had never expected the disease or its terrible consequences. The New York Times Book Review called the book "an account of the plague years in America, beautifully written, fascinating and tragic, by a doctor who was shaped and changed by his patients." As an African-born Indian, Dr. Verghese revealed something essential about our American soul, reminding us, said Washington Post Book World "of what is honorable and charitable in the way humans behave toward each other." My Own Country presents an unflinching portrait of men and women facing the prospect of premature death, yet sometimes learning for the first time in that bleak circumstance how it is to live.

In 1991, Verghese moved west, bringing his wife and two young sons to the boarder town of El Paso, Texas. There he crossed paths with David Smith, a medical student who came to America from Australia on a tennis scholarship and played briefly on the pro tour before deciding to become a doctor. Recognizing some spark of commonality--perhaps just that of two strangers on the very edge of America--Verghese cajoled him into playing tennis again.

On the wards, Verghese is teacher and mentor as he guides David through difficult and sometime colorful clinic problems seen in a country hospital. He teaches him how to read the signs from the human body, to use his hands to percuss, and to use his mind to listen. On the tennis court, their roles are reversed: The clinician becomes the student--almost. David helps Verghese hone his strokes and sharpen his game. But Verghese, a compulsive collector since childhood of tennis lore and trivia, a compiler of notebooks on tennis heroes, ephemeral styles, and trendy strategies, rekindles David's love of the game, a love burnt out by the brutal competitiveness of the professional circuit. Perhaps this is how friendship between men are born: art work and at play.

When the two men test their newfound bond, their friendship becomes something quite remarkable. Verghese confesses that his marriage is failing--and David admits that he is a recovering intravenous cocaine addict, struggling mightily to hold on to his girlfriend, his career, his sobriety. Against the stubborn, unyielding backdrop of the desert, their relationship grows increasingly rich and complex, more intimate than two men usually allow. Whether they are cycling on Old Mesilla, seeing a critically ill patient, or commiserating about a failed romance, each anticipates the other's needs, is there to buttress a fall, or to celebrate the small victories: David's graduation, Verghese's son's birthdays.

Just when it seems that nothing can go wrong, that friendship will be able to conquer all, the dark beast from David's past emerges once again. As Verghese scrambles to rescue him, David proves that he is friend to everyone but himself. When David spirals out of control, almost everything Verghese has come to trust and believe in is threatened. It is a defining moment, the kind each of us must eventually face--it is from such adversity that our lives are carved.

The Tennis Partner is a remarkable journey to the ends and the edges of friendship, to its heights of intimacy and clarity, and also to its hellish depths of deception and betrayal. It is, above all, an unforgettable, illuminating story of how men live, and how they survive.

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Review:

What is it about sports that makes some men wax as mystical as a Castanedan Yaqui? In the hands of writers such as David James Duncan and Norman Maclean, the simple, repetitive motions of baseball, fly-fishing, and golf have acquired almost numinous significance. In The Tennis Partner, Dr. Abraham Verghese takes on his own fascination with tennis and comes up with as good an explanation as any: "In the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in space, we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricious. Each ball that we put into play, for as long as it went back and forth between us, felt like a charm to be added to a necklace full of spells, talismans, and fetishes, which one day add up to an Aaron's rod, an Aladdin's lamp, a magic carpet. Each time we played, this feeling of restoring order, of mastery, was awakened."

For both Verghese and his tennis partner, a fourth-year medical student named David Smith, the game is a much-needed island of order in the midst of personal chaos. Both men are struggling to rebuild their lives, Verghese undergoing a painful divorce, Smith struggling with an intravenous cocaine addiction. For a brief, idyllic period, their friendship flourishes; Verghese mentors Smith in the examining room, while Smith, an Australian who competed briefly on the pro circuit, ends up Verghese's teacher on the court. But there are dark corners to David's personality, and under the mounting pressures of medical school and his increasingly complicated love life, these come to the fore. Even as he learns how to inhabit his new life, Verghese watches with horror as his friend relapses, dries out, then relapses again. The author of the powerful My Own Country, a chronicle of caring for AIDS patients in rural Tennessee, Verghese once again proves that the skills of a good doctor are strikingly similar to those of a good writer. Careful observation, compassion, restraint: these are the instruments Verghese uses to stunning effect in The Tennis Partner. A paean to the healing powers of tennis, this book is also a moving meditation on friendship, fatherhood, love, addiction, and the particular loneliness of physicians. --Mary Park

From the Author:

The first image of what would become Night Ride Home was of a woman very alone in the center of Missouri farmland with something of death around her. I didn't know her, nor why she was paralyzed by grieving. I wouldn't suspect for two years that she might fall in love. But I did recognize the place: St. Charles, the small town outside of St. Louis where I grew up. The town of St. Charles was transformed into the place of the novel, Lacote--built on low hills along the Missouri River and surrounded by farmland, much of which was on flood plain. One of my earliest and most powerful memories is standing with my father on a day in 1953 when the river was so high that it overran the river's steep bank. Rivers and floods, whether real or imagined, shape those people who live with them. While some humans are arrogant enough to believe they can control whatever they put their minds to, floods give a lesson in humility and respect for forces greater than our own. When the land begins to reappear after a flood, we see it piece by piece, the way we do the parts of an answer to a problem we are working out. Or the scenes of a novel being written. Nora, the woman in Night Ride Home, has to try to rebuild her life bit by bit after the death of her son, a death she can no more stop than the Missouri River that floods her land.

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