A funny thing happened on my way to the Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill, repeatedly. I had time on my flights to read The Franchise Babe ($24.95, Doubleday) by Dan Jenkins.
The thing about Jenkins is that you know what you’re getting when you pick up any of his books — a few hundred pages of semi-hilarious, is what.
His latest novel is no exception. In fact, it’s great to see that Jenkins still has his fastball. He ranks with the best and most influential sportswriters of the 20th century (I’d say the best, period — see The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate, the best golf book ever written, and Saturday’s America, the best college football book ever written, for details).
Nobody writes smart-ass snappy dialogue better than The Master, especially in his native language — Texan. Which makes for fast, light and amusing reading. You will laugh out loud half a dozen times, guaranteed minimum, with this one.
There’s actually a fairly clever concept for this novel. Jenkins, playing the role of wise-cracking, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, terminally carousing middle-aged sportswriter Jack Bannon (yeah, quite a stretch), decides that pro golf has gotten stale so he goes to where he hears the action really is — the LPGA Tour.
Here, let Jack Bannon explain it: “You could say I was trying to change my luck. Or you could say I’d grown tired of writing Tiger Woods, comma. For more than twenty years I’d been covering the PGA Tour but in the last ten or twelve, all I’d done was write about Tiger whipping up on a bunch of slugs — in his sleep, blindfolded with one endorsement contract tied behind him. I needed a break from watching him beat guys who dress the same, get rich for finishing tenth and couldn’t give you a good quote if you stuck a shoehorn down their throats. There’s a joke in the pressrooms now that the tour should be known as Black Jesus and the Dwarfs.”
His rant continues later: “These guys get rich for not winning … and this is while they’re criticizing the golf course and the clubhouse food and telling the sponsor they may not come back next year. They don’t even know each other, much less the press. They only know their agents, swing coaches, sports psychologists and TV anchors. It’s a boring, dreary period in American pro golf. The worst since 1911 or 1912, when the only star we had was good old Johnny McDermott.”
Bannon writes for New York-based SM, The Sports Magazine. Which is nothing like New York-based Sports Illustrated, one of Jenkins’ former employers in real life. Bannon is a star and a published author, having written Excuse My Free Drops, a golf book, and You Can Bet Me, a novel. He arrives on the LPGA scene just in time to discover Ginger Clayton, a gorgeous 18 year old who’s about to conquer the tour with big game, and her equally gorgeous — and available — mom, Thurlene. The rest is a breezy mix of golf, Tonya Harding-like intrigue, romance and funny lines.
The plot isn’t complicated. The truth is, you read Jenkins for his comic observations like this: “Stockbrokers and lawyers, pound for pound, made a s—load more money than journalists. So I wrote it off as one of God’s mistakes, like not letting dogs live longer.”
May Bannon, and Jenkins, live long and prosper. And, oh yeah, please keep on writing.