In the novel The Tennis Handsome, Barry Hannah launches his main character, French Edward, the tennis handsome of the title, onto the tennis circuit. French has a powerful game and his exploits on the tour include matches with tennis greats like Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe, but he has one small problem, he’s brain dead. But Hannah takes care of this slight defect in this rollicking, hilarious parody of life on the tennis circuit by creating the “Baby” Levaster character, who serves as the mind to French Edward’s magnificent body.
Hannah was an award-winning writer noted for his Southern Gothic style. The main characters in The Tennis Handsome hail from Vicksburg, Miss. and no matter how far afield their tennis adventures take them, a sense of the Southern penchant for tall tales informs their adventures.
The problem for French Edward is that he nearly drowned in a fall from the Mississippi Bridge in Vicksburg, Miss., while trying to save his tennis coach Doctor Word from committing suicide. He did save him, but not before both men nearly drowned and neither emerged with all their marbles.
For French Edward, this means he has to hook himself up to truck batteries every now and then to get the charge he needs to continue to compete at a high level. Despite all the hand-wringing about the competitiveness of U.S. tennis, this training method probably won’t be adopted by the USTA high performance training program.
“French’s arms and hands were flung out to the clamps of the battery cables. His ears and nose were bleeding nicely. The smell of burning hair was laying about. Also, a leg was jerking around some.”
To point out that this isn’t a realistic novel may unnecessary by now, but enjoying it does require the reader to suspend disbelief and swallow some of Hannah’s more outrageous inventions wholesale.
Levaster and French Edward travel the tennis circuit, working as a mind-body team, never winning the biggest titles, but performing respectably in smaller events. Levaster has a curious pastime of wandering about in places where he might get mugged with a shotgun pistol loaded with popcorn that he uses to get rid of potential attackers.
Another feature of Hannah’s book that won’t likely be adopted on the ATP tour is French Edward’s practice of taking the umpire’s mic before his match starts and dedicating it.
One such speech in the book dedicates the match he is about to play to his deceased infant son. Other matches are dedicated to the numerous woman that pop up in the traveling life of French Edward and Levaster, who’s official function is Edward’s trainer.
You have to like an author who describes Bud Collins as wearing a “voodoo dashiki” and typing like a maniac. Levaster praises Collins for his sympatric treatment of French Edward in his columns, which leads Levaster to believe that “maybe there was a place in his heart and ear for an aging, handsome moron of the tennis world.”
Between the outrageous shenanigans of Levaster and the contributions of another character, the crazed Vietnam veteran Bob Smith, The Tennis Handsome is a romp of a book with a touch of the gonzo craziness of author Hunter Thompson dressed up in tennis whites.