Just for a change, here's something to celebrate: a book that's actually an enjoyable, if sometimes frustrating read. Kit Raymond's eccentric self-published account of events at a rowing club where he was head coach is entertainingly written and illustrated, and deserves to be better known.
That it is not is largely due to the author's choices: he didn't merely self-publish it, he printed and bound it too. The binding is endearingly amateurish, and as you can see it's in an awkward oblong format as well. Who knows how many were printed? Mine is the only copy I know of: there's none in WorldCat and although it seemingly bears an ISBN and Library of Congress number, both are bogus. (The purported ISBN bar code, on close inspection, bears the legend "ISBH", as though it were a shoddy counterfeit). The publishing company is named after two of the author's dogs.
My guess would be that it was produced for the amusement of the author and a few of his pals, though it is no mere pamphlet. Although it is only 180 pages the typeface is small and closely spaced, and it's as long as a typical novel. It's also profusely illustrated with paintings and drawings by Raymond.
Raymond's story appears not to be fictional, though some names have been withheld or changed to keep the waters muddy. It's a tale of a friendship, his with one Greg Muller, and of the politics of the rowing club where he was for a time the head coach.
He and Greg wanted to make changes to how things were run at the club. In particular, they wanted it to have its own boathouse, a project that the conservative management of the club endlessly discuss but never bring to fruition. Frustrated and feeling that the upper echelons at the club have little real interest in the sport they ostensibly promote, Greg becomes "Spray Bottle Man", an alter ego designed to get up the noses of the powers that be, under which name he runs for election to the post of president of the club. Unsurprisingly, he fails in this quixotic venture, and as a result both he and Raymond are given the push.
This is the nub of the story, but Raymond takes a long route getting there. As a prologue we learn how in Greg's own words how he had a heart attack and was near to death:
So, they had me in the room there, and they are doing a bunch of tests and a doctor walks in and says, "Mr. Muller, you know we have to do a lot of tests on you."
I said, "SIGN ME UP!!! My goal is to have one test of everything."
So they do a test and they say "Mr. Muller, your ejection fraction is so low, it is amazing that you can survive."
"......................... is that so?"
"That's right and we got to put you in Trendelenburg."
I said, "Oh no, you're sending me to a psychiatric institute now!"
"No, Mr. Muller, Trendelenburg is a position."
"Is that right, what kind of position is that?"
"That's where you get in a bed, and they crank the bed so your head is way down close to the floor and your feet are way up in the air. so that with the little blood you have circulating, most of it goes to your head."
"Ooooh that's great! Trendelenburg."
So, I am lying there in the hospital, I am in Trendelenburg. I am looking at the ceiling, I am looking at the ceiling all day, the same spot on the ceiling. They crank me down for breakfast, they crank me down for lunch, they crank me down for dinner, but they always crank me back up, so I am in that Trendelenburg position, so what little blood I have circulating, gets to my head because God knows, I wouldn't want to die."
So, they come to me and they say, "Mr. Muller, you have a serious problem."
I said, "Well, I coulda guessed that!"
"You may be a candidate for a heart transplant!"
Indeed, Greg does have a transplant and recovers. It is this experience that later gives him the determination to take on the rowing establishment. But before we reach that point there is much homely digression to be had, on rowing and friendship and the nature of humanity. Here's a typical passage from a chapter on coaching.
Coaches, iike Easter eggs, come in all colors and sizes. When I first arrived at the job at the club, a young lad came to town from the far west with visions in his mind of being a "great coach". My first time seeing him was something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He was sitting on the stern of his launch with a fishing pole. There was something so innocent about the guy. I remember reading about Custer's last stand and a general named Frederick Benteen who had the face of a cherub and the eyes of a killer. This coach had a smile that could crack granite. He would also have been great, at least for the white troopers, in Custer's last stand. He had a voice that carried across the lake ... without a megaphone. His giveaway, however, was his mouth. He had a mouth on him that was so acid, that if you put a car battery in his mouth, he would chew it up, drink the acid and spit out the plastic and lead without blinking. He was the meanest son of a bitch coach you could ever meet. One of our rowers who had played Division 1-A football as a defensive back and graduated from a prestigious military academy that likes to fly jets, said he thought he had met all the tough mean bastards in boot camp, that is until he met this guy. He was the worst of them all. He said he was going to quit until I promised him I made sure this s.o.b. never coached him. Away from rowing, however, our coaching cherub was also one of the most charming guys you could ever meet. Rowing does that to you. He was clueless and happy because some of the young women in the club fawned over him, mouth like a gatling gun or not.
There are word pictures of weather and what it feels like to row in early morning light, of clashes with rowers and club officials, and there is much of Raymond's home-brewed aquatic philosophy.
Water. Without water no one rows. I have seen the Sahara. There is little water. When I landed in Egypt many years ago, I couldn't wait to see all the sand piles. The first night I arrived in Cairo, I arrived in the dark and found myself ensconced up on the 18th floor of a big hotel. I hit the bed suffering from a mean case of jet lag. In the morning I work up half comatose and shuffled to the balcony to look at my new worls, expecting camels on sand dunes. My eyes caught the distant horizon but I heard something familiar. My eyes started to lower and lower and lower. When they came to a stop, 18 stories below me, there was an eight oared shell plying the waters of the Nile with a coxswain screaming. I should have known. You want antiquity, you get rowing. You travel half way round the world to see sand piles and you get rowing.
Raymond may not be the greatest writer or artist, but he is an enjoyable companion and you end up wishing that he and Greg could have won the day. With the assistance of a good editor, perhaps this book could have been turned into something approaching literature but I suspect he would not easily have submitted to the necessary discipline. Probably anticipating that it was unlikely to be widely read or reviewed, Raymond thoughtfully supplied as his blurb a series of spoof reviewer "quotes" allegedly from the mouths of his dogs, Let these have the last word.