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Monday, March 2, 2015

Chris Crutcher

At a glance
Athletic Shorts
by Chris Crutcher

208 pages, $6.99

No one, least of all Chris Crutcher, could have predicted the fame that would come his way as a writer.

Crutcher, after all, was the roommate of the writer. It was his friend Terry Davis who, if life were a Hollywood comedy, was supposed to maintain top billing.

Davis was first in print, and his "Vision Quest" still ranks in many readers' minds as the quintessential Spokane novel.

It was even adapted into a middling success of a 1985 film that made the Lilac City look beautiful and introduced a somewhat grateful nation to the music video of Madonna singing "Crazy for You."

All Crutcher did was write a little novel based on his experiences growing up in Cascade, Idaho. But that 1983 novel, "Running Loose," proved to be merely the start of what has been an impressive career.

With the nine novels that followed including "Deadline," from which he will read at Auntie's Bookstore on Sept. 17 Crutcher became that rarest of successes: the secondary character who ends up sharing the spotlight.

This is one reason why his 1991 story collection "Athletic Shorts" (HarperTeen, 208 pages, $6.99 paper) reigns as the September read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

It's hardly the main reason, though. Fact is, "Athletic Shorts" is a deserving book even without the inspiring back story.

Crutcher's strength as a writer always has been based on his ability to mine the material provided to him by his longtime day job. As a family counselor, he has worked with children haunted by the specter of abuse.

His value comes from showing how while sometimes that abuse destroys you, other times it makes you stronger. And no matter how hard their lives become, Crutcher's characters typically display overly developed senses of humor.

A good example in "Athletic Shorts" comes in the story "The Pin," which tells the story of a prep wrestler named Johnny Rivers whose talent for wordplay is matched only by his desire to wrestle his father.

Johnny's baby brother may be a cough, cough "cereal killer," but his father is an abusive jerk.

"Dad and I don't see eye to eye to the extent that at times we see eye to black eye," Johnny says.

As I wrote in my original review of "Athletic Shorts," pain, both emotional and physical, is the key that holds the book together.

An overweight football player learns his essential worth in the story "A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune." And one of Johnny Rivers' buddies figures out how to confront fear in "The Other Pin."

Aside from pain, though, "Athletic Shorts" offers up a pantheon of characters that fans of Crutcher's fiction have come to know.

One of the swimmers from his 1986 novel "Stotan!" shows up in the story "Goin' Fishin.' " And Louis Banks, the protagonist of "Running Loose," is the central figure of the story "In the Time I Get."

As in the best of Crutcher's work, these half-dozen stories are told in the voices of actual kids, who can be as profane as they are smart.

But, again, as I wrote in my 1991 review, "(A)s a writer whose specialty is portraying youthful struggles with all the other difficult challenges that life poses especially morality, courage and parental pressures Crutcher is as tuned into his subject as any author can be."

Other reviewers have tended to agree.

From Publishers Weekly: "In these six short stories, (Crutcher) and his athlete protagonists take on such weighty issues as racism, homophobia, sexism and the teenager's essential task of coming to terms with his parents. At the same time the author makes the world of sports compelling enough to engage even the most sedentary readers."

School Library Journal: "The stereotype of jocks as insensitive dullards is challenged in stories that grapple with the big questions of life as well as with athletic prowess, told with good-natured aplomb and gritty honesty."

But maybe the review that is most worth considering is this commentary posted online by Aaron Countryman, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Fairfield, Iowa:

"I think this book 'Athletic Shorts' is a very good book because I'm into athletics. But 'Goin' Fishin' ' is a serious story that shows the problem that kids today are having with alcohol and the bad things that can happen when kids use alcohol. Chris Crutcher's description of the characters is great and you can get into the characters' thoughts and actually envision the peoples' lives."

Let's leave the final word, though, to Crutcher himself. Commenting about "Running Loose" when it was first published 24 years ago, he gave as good an introduction to "Athletic Shorts" as one could want.

"The core of that book is that life is a game," he said. "Relationships are games. And the job of life is to learn the rules. To learn how they work.

"It's a game. But it's a serious game. And if you don't learn the rules, you play it badly."

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