Copyright © 2007, Bryce
Reviews For WINNING by Bryce Christensen
“Powerfully written with in-depth
characterization, Winning is itself a winner. Christensen’s philosophical
style will appeal to all readers, along with prose delivered with a
luring cadence that at times comes very close to poetic. A poignant,
thought-provoking story providing a galvanizing look at family dynamics,
inner struggles, and the impetus behind certain driven behaviors, this
book will hold the reader’s attention until the end.”
moody book will appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks. .
. . [A] powerful story that will haunt you."
“. . . part war story, part family saga, part coming-of-age drama . . . . Christensen's meditation on love and loss, hope and despair, and winning losing is both sensitive and insightful. The 'softening' of the hero may remind sports-fiction fans of Mark Harris's classic 'Bang the Drum Slowly.'" - Reviewed by Mary Frances Wilkens for American Library Association Booklist
Sample Chapter For WINNING by Bryce Christensen
I scanned the parking lot before the service, looking for Brad’s red Pontiac. I did not see it. Nor did I see his intense face when I repeatedly looked back over the pews during the service. Given the small-town craving for a bit of drama, I’m sure that other necks were likewise craning for a backward glance, other eyes were likewise stealing furtive glances over the congregation, looking for a countenance sure to add tension—and interest—to the occasion. But I had not really expected to find my nephew among the hundred or so mourners in Dilthon’s Presbyterian chapel that day.
Still, I had hoped. Hoped that somehow Brad could spare an hour to grieve the death of one who had tried so hard to live up to his high expectations. Someone who would have given anything to please him. But having fallen short of the mark Brad had set for him in life, Alasdair Pittman would merit none of Brad’s concern in death. In any case, Brad did not do funerals. The dead held little interest for him. And in this case, no interest whatever.
Brad had better things to do than lament the suicide of a loser. His time would be better spent recruiting and coaching a new and better place kicker for next year’s team, a kicker who wouldn’t fold under the pressure of the biggest game of the year. A winner.
Mourning for a loser like Alasdair was left to other losers—like me and the nine or ten other teachers and the thirty-odd students that Paul Hales, the principal, had been able to conscript. A stretch, really, to say that we were all there to mourn Alasdair. Some, as I have suggested, had come hoping for some scandal, or at least some excitement, to relieve their boredom. But most were there out of obligation. Half of the teachers and most of the students had barely even known him. Most of the faculty came not out of any sincere sense of loss, but out of a sense of professional duty. It was like grading tests or chaperoning dances—teachers did this kind of thing.
Academic duty had also summoned the school’s a cappella choir, on hand to sing in memory of a boy most of the choir members had avoided during his years at Dilthon High. Duty had also brought the student council—at least the female members of the council. Popular girls who had never felt it their duty to so much as exchange greetings with Alasdair alive felt obligated to pay their respects to him dead. The boys on the council did not come at all.
Two exceptions: the student-body president, Stephen Camp, was there, as was the junior class president, Matt Olson. The only male members of the council in attendance, they acted out their duty with evident discomfort, awkwardly sidling their way into the pews at the back of the chapel, clearly embarrassed to be there. Stephen and Matt were also the only football players there. And the football team had learned only too well from their coach to put losing—and losers—behind them.
But the awkwardness of the two football players merely reflected in an exaggerated form the stilted woodenness of the entire service. Everyone followed the accepted but uninspired script for the occasion, mechanically reading lines, moving stiffly on cue to assigned places on stage. More polished than the two football players, but no less perfunctory, the minister presided without emotion, without spontaneity, conducting with cold correctness services he clearly wanted to be over. Two or three times, the service was interrupted by uncontrollable sobs from Alasdair’s mother, Janice Pittman. But she seemed to realize that she was embarrassing others and prolonging their unpleasant duty: passionate grief had no place in this script. At the end of each outburst, she cast haggard eyes about the chapel in a quick, desperate search for some sign of unfeigned sympathy or compassion; finding none, she drew herself together and returned to the script. A remarkably young woman to have a seventeen-year-old son, Mrs. Pittman looked like a frightened child that day, a child clinging to her other son, fourteen-year-old Anson, whose bewilderment surpassed his grief.
As to the whereabouts of Alasdair’s father—Janice Pittman’s former husband—I have no idea. I had never met the man. Rumor had it that he was an aimless alcoholic who had abandoned his wife shortly after the birth of their second son, Anson. What became of him after that, I cannot say. I can say that—whether because of inebriation or simple disconnection—he did not make it for his son’s funeral that November day. Maybe it was just as well. The script for the dreary services did not seem to include the part of a derelict drunk father anyway.
A tiny spark of genuine feeling did glow feebly and briefly during the remarks of Kevin Larsen—a classmate actually willing to speak. Kevin, apparently, had occasionally judged the need to ostracize Alasdair in order to preserve his own social reputation to have been less urgent than his need to save his math grade by getting Alasdair’s help with his homework. He at least broke from the script enough to stammer a bit. Alasdair, he said, with neither the grace nor the artifice of sophistication, had been “real nice” (repeated three or four times) to help him with his math, especially the hard problems. He said he was real sorry about the way Alasdair had died, but then, seeming to sense that he’d brushed against a topic that his audience did not want to hear about, relapsed into his “real nice” motif. Then, looking at the minister and the principal for nods of approval, he sat down.
The mood of dutiful constraint prevailed through the number performed by the school choir, of which Alasdair had been a member. The minister announced the choir number “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in a flat monotone which gave no hint of the cruel irony of the choir director’s senseless selection of this show tune. No one else seemed to take note of the irony either, least of all the choir, which labored through their number with all the emotion of an end-of-the-school-day rehearsal.
And then it happened. Reality poked a rude hole in the illusory funeral script. The choir members were clearing the rostrum row by row when one girl hung back—I recognized her immediately as Janet Sharpe, the sophomore girl who’d gone to the Homecoming Dance with Alasdair after his one brief moment of gridiron triumph. Her hands clenched at her sides, her eyes burning with anger, she looked out over a congregation suddenly unsettled and uneasy, everyone casting anxious glances at the minister and choir director to see how they would handle this small crisis.
“Unfair!” Janet cried in a voice that wavered between a shout and a scream.
“Unfair!” she cried again. “It’s all so unfair! It’s all Coach Porter’s fault—and he doesn’t even care! He’s not even here!” The last words, dragged out with painful emphasis, seemed to last forever.
Then it was over. The choir director, Eva Stable, her face aflame with embarrassment, rushed up, threw her arms around Janet’s shoulders, and hurried her off the rostrum. Janet did not resist. Her message delivered, she melted into submission.
But the pretense had been punctured. The script for dutiful mourning had been shredded by the unanticipated intrusion of honest feeling, of authentic outrage, and no one knew quite how to carry on.
Janet’s brief tirade particularly rattled the minister. He hurried through three or four scriptures, tripping over his own tongue, transposing words and jumbling sacred syntax, his haste betraying an insecurity verging on panic.
What’s he afraid of? I wondered. Truth? Genuine emotion? Risking a glance at Janice Pittman, I was surprised to see her face relaxed, as if in relief, even appreciation. She looked more composed and poised than she had looked at any previous time in the services.
But it was the minister’s mood, not Mrs. Pittman’s, which spread like a contagion through the congregation. Everyone began shifting uneasily in the pews, looking furtively at their watches. Even those who had come hoping for a bit of scandal seemed eager to be gone—probably so they could immediately spread their version of Janet’s outburst (imaginatively embellished and dramatized) through Dilthon’s efficient rumor mill. In any case, the minister did not keep them from their telephones long. The abruptness with which he ended the services—his benediction a barely coherent string of vapid phrases—reflected the general mood of the gathering, with most moving to the chapel exits with a speed scarcely conducive to decorum.
Along with just a couple of the other teachers and three or four students, I chose to follow the short cortege to the Dilthon cemetery, a place I had often visited since the death of my wife, Susan, two years before. One of the larger islands of green illusion the citizens of Dilthon had managed to impose on western Wyoming’s sagebrush desert, the cemetery owed its verdure to an efficient sprinkling system. A single summer without this modern marvel would desiccate the grass and kill off the trees, leaving the graves as gray and desolate as those in the old, rarely-visited pioneer cemetery a mile south of town. Located on the east side of town, Dilthon’s newer cemetery sloped upward from its southern entrance to the hedge of Russian Olive bushes which formed its northern boundary. Three or four streets of newer houses paralleled the hedge on the northern slope.
Our van was a little late leaving the church, delayed by a teacher discussing some matter with Paul. So by the time we reached the cemetery, the few vehicles in the cortege had parked and disgorged their riders, and the pallbearers had transported their load of mortuary steel to the green belts stretched across the grave. The minister had recovered his veneer of composure: in performing the brief graveside service, he suppressed every hint of his earlier discomfiture. As most of those who had gathered at the graveside made their way back to their parked cars, I remained, hanging back with the intention of talking briefly with Mrs. Pittman. But to Mrs. Pittman and her remaining son, Anson, there remained the awful task of taking their final leave of the coffin.
As Mrs. Pittman removed the carnation from her jacket lapel and placed it on Alasdair’s coffin, whatever self-possession Janet’s outburst had given her evaporated. I knew enough about that kind of grief not to intrude. I walked back to the van where the other teachers and the students were already waiting for me. I could talk with Janice Pittman later.