Steve Braunias reviews the as-told-to sports hero bio of All Blacks skipper Kieran Read, and fully expects it to suck.
Good book. No, really, even though Straight 8 by Kieran Read with Scotty Stevenson ought to suck, because the as-told-to sports hero bio generally and routinely sucks, with its phoney ventriloquism (the sports hero never actually says any of the stuff in the way it appears on the page), its cliches and banter and dad jokes, its emphasis on injuries to the groin and other tender surfaces, its large quota of modesties and humilities and aw-shucksies. And there are many, many pages of All Black skipper Kieran Read’s sports hero bio, as-told-to rugby commentator Scotty Stevenson, which duly and thoroughly suck, but not any worse than the standard sucking that this genre routinely achieves, and not in any way that will put Kiwi Dad off reading it this summer with his feet up and a can in his hand and his mind as empty as Remuera in January.
In fact, Kiwi Dad is in for a surprise. The book actually resembles literature. It’s a fascinating character study.
“He’s a complex man,” Stevenson writes in the introduction. “He’s at once everything you expect him to be and nothing like you imagined.” Well, aren’t we all. No one is a set play. Read comes across as a decent bloke in public and he comes across that way in the book. There’s a quality of goodness about him – someone kind, thoughtful, gentle. Stevenson goes further; he’s got close to Read, and there are times when his book is a portrait of the athlete as a crack-up, a head-case.
Certainly he cries a lot. Page 139, on his Christchurch home smothered under geysers of mud in the earthquake: “For the first time in my life I felt like I was having a breakdown. I sat there, crying, steeling myself to shovel mud for the next few days.” Page 177, on being unable to play the second half of a Springboks test because of head injury: “I was tired of the headaches and the dizziness, and the constant, menacing fear. I stood there with my wife, and she held me as I sobbed.” Page 230, on destroying his thumb (and chances of playing again that season) in another Springbok test: “I couldn’t stop the tears. I sat there hunched over in the changing room and let the sobs come.”
There are other weepings hither and yon, and the serious problem with Straight 8 – the commercial problem, the somewhat off-putting problem – is that we all know that it ends in tears. We all know where the Kieran Read as-told-to sports hero bio is headed: that dark, unhappy Labour Weekend at the Rugby World Cup. Loss, defeat, 9-17, England burying the All Blacks in a hole in the ground at Yokohama. Page 287 of the 288-page book: “I stared at the ground, empty…I broke down in the sheds…I showered alone. Tears were washed away, but the pain could not be scrubbed clean.” Kiwi Dad! Merry Xmas; here’s a book that ends in profound and miserable failure.
The book is damaged goods. Bent 8, more like it. Who wants a record or a reminder of loss? You can imagine the publisher collapsing to the floor when the All Blacks were knocked out of the World Cup: there goes a sure-fire smash hit, the uplifting story of the captain who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.
Still, sales should be brisk. Read’s decent Kiwi blokeness and epic sporting record are attractive, and Stevenson has put a lot of work into crafting his story. He understands rugby and appreciates the intense frailties of elite athletic performance. There’s a long, fascinating chapter on how much pain Read’s head injury was causing him – just watching his daughters bounce on the trampoline gave him headaches – and what he went through to combat it, including psychiatric counselling and something called VRT, or vestibular rehabilitation therapy: “The programme was based on repeated small exercises, like walking down the hallway placing one foot in front of the other, or moving my head side to side while keeping my eyes on an X taped to the wall, or even flinging myself backwards onto the bed.” Behold the All Blacks skipper, a giant of a man, reduced to staring at an X on the wall in an attempt to get his head right.
You don’t learn much about other people. Beauden Barrett is Beaudy, Steve Hansen is Shag, Graham Henry is Ted, nothing else. The longest Straight 8 spends examining anyone is Richie McCaw. It doesn’t appear to go very far. “He never once asked me a personal question about my life, family, interests – anything outside the team…We had thousands of conversations over the years, but they were always about something that was necessary at the time. In that way you could feel close to him without really getting to know him.” In that way it’s actually a valuable and wise insight.
The craft of rugby is unpicked and analysed in detail. Read talks about things called “the kick receipt” and “click plays”, and about the 2011 revolution when rugby became a kind of version of soccer’s Total Football (“We wanted to use the ball to beat the man and to run square, and we wanted everyone in the team to be able to do it”), and about how visualising has allowed him “to understand the shifts of a game and to see the patterns unfold before me on the field….The game may last 80 minutes, but the result is decided by a thousand split-second decisions.” Thinking, always thinking. Read tells how he wakes up his wife and his team-mates by yelling lineout calls in his sleep.
And so there’s a lot of good stuff in here but also a lot of dross, a lot of I-was-over-the-moon, but-then-I-had-a-sore-groin. The voice drones, blathers, bores. A pox on the as-told-to sports hero bio; the actual premise is so narrowing, with its attempt to put words in the hero’s mouth and sell the reader the conceit that it’s a story told in the first-person. (From Straight 8: “It always feels like rush hour when you’re standing next to a motorway, watching the processional convoy of economic progress droning its way north to south or south to north, filling six lanes of blacktop with the constant throb of agitated engines and restless souls.”) It’s fake, it’s deceitful, it’s counterfeit. And yet interesting and even amazing things can be done with the form. The modern masterpiece is Open (2009) by Andre Agassi with journalist and author JR Moehringer, who trained for the book by reading Freud and Bertrand Russell, and deciding that Agassi’s voice would be told as “present tense, no quotation marks, sort of stream of consciousness”, as he explained to the New York Times. The older masterpiece is Best (1975) by George Best with Michael Parkinson. Best later complained that Parky got him drunk and recorded the ravings of a sot, but that’s the beauty of the book: its fantastic honesty. Like Open, Best is a wonderful evocation of genius.
There’s one passage in Straight 8 when Stevenson really transcends the stale as-told-to genre. It describes the All Blacks bonding session on the East Coast just before the World Cup in Japan. They bombed off the wharf at Tolaga Bay, they were serenaded by wahine with a guitar at Tokomaru Bay – and then they stayed the night in an old woolshed at the base of Mt Hikurangi. It was all haka, all the time. “We lit the scene with car lights and ripped into our haka. Our guides, all Ngati Porou, challenged us back with a haka of their own. It was incredible…We had very little sleep that night and were woken in darkness to pile into 4WD vehicles and ATVs for the drive up the mountain. As we arrived, the sun slowly rises above the horizon. We performed our haka for the new day.”
Great story, with its quintessential New Zealandness (bombing, guitars, a meaningful experience with the land), and told so well. Stevenson is a classy writer and a classy guy. As a former barman at the late-night Federal Street joint Mo’s he saw the worst in human nature – I used to drink there a lot – but he was never judgmental, always observant, someone who could size up a situation and command respect. He brings these qualities to Straight 8. As a writer, you can tell at once that he’s a good reader: like Greg Bruce and Duncan Greive, two other gifted New Zealand feature writers of the same generation, Stevenson absorbed the best long-form American sports writing from the past two decades, and they’ve all practised it in their own styles. Bruce is meticulous, a prose stylist. Greive is energised, a fan. Stevenson is probably the purest storyteller. A classic piece appeared in The Spinoff in 2015, when he travelled to Napier to evoke a Ranfurly Shield match between Hawkes Bay and Auckland: “The rain. The endless, drenching, misty, cold spring rain. The teams warmed up in the rain. The crowd drank beer in the rain.”
That Stevenson – the writer, the storyteller – is evident in the Straight 8 passage about the All Blacks’ trip to the East Coast. That Stevenson could have written a truly great book about Kieran Read. That Stevenson will write a truly great sports book one day. None of this as-told-to bullshit; told for real, in his own voice, under his own name.
But at the end of the day Straight 8 does the job. Kiwi Dad wants it; give it to Kiwi Dad. It’s a fine and appealing portrait of Kieran Read, a sensitive guy, a role model, a GC, a magnificent sportsman, a great champion, and, ultimately, at the climax, a hurt, pained, bloodied, distraught, shattered, weeping loser, fucked-up and alone in a shower.
Straight 8 by Kieran Read with Scotty Stevenson (Upstart Press, $49.99)