Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Dan Jenkins, R.I.P.

This story dates back more years than I want to remember. My wife and I were sitting around in the living room one night reading. I don't remember what it was she was looking at, but I had You Gotta Play Hurt, the new novel (at the time) by Dan Jenkins. It was about a sportswriter named Jim Tom Pinch, who bore a suspicious resemblance to Jenkins himself; Pinch was part of Jenkins' wacky universe, having appeared as a supporting character in Jenkins' best-known novel, Semi-Tough, as well as several others. This was a chance for Jim Tom to star in a story of his own.

My wife was telling me something funny from her book, and in retrospect what I should have done was stick a finger in my book and turn all my attention to her. Not that I was not paying attention, mind you (you don't stay happily married for 26 years by doing that), but by letting my eye continue to drift down the page while I listened to her, I was dooming her dooming her story to eternal obscurity.

The end of her story and the end of the paragraph I was reading came more or less simultaneously. As for what happened next—well, the only way to really do justice to it is to say that I completely, utterly, lost it. I had been confronted with a scene that was beyond Jenkins's usual level of absurdity; it was so outrageous, so utterly ridiculous, that there was no possible way I could have reacted otherwise. I suspect it was the reaction Jenkins was hoping for; I like to think that when he'd finished the paragraph, he might have read it over and had a good chuckle himself. I was able to go one better than that, though—perhaps several times better.

Had my wife not known me as well as she does, she might have thought I was suffering from convulsions, or was perhaps about to throw up. As it was, there was nothing she could do but sit there and watch as I spent five minutes, maybe ten, cackling hysterically. Have you ever seen the famous clip of Steve Allen laughing uncontrollably at some blooper he'd committed? If you have, you'll know what I mean. And if you haven't, here it is. The description calls it a "laughing fit," and that's what I suppose it was. I was trying to keep the tears from getting the pages of the book wet, and whenever I tried to tell her what it was I'd found so unaccountably funny, I was only able to get a word or two out before I started all over again. She wasn't offended that I was ignoring her story, I don't think. I'm a serious enough person that I think she's usually just happy to see me laughing. It was, without question, the single funniest thing I have ever read, seen, or heard in my nearly fifty-nine years on this planet. And what was so funny, you might ask?

I'm not going to tell you.

Don't be offended, though; the point of fact is that in the twenty-some years since this happened, I've never told anyone what it was that was so funny. The only person I ever did tell was my wife, when I was eventually, after repeated attempts, able to get it all out in a somewhat coherent form. She agreed that it was, indeed, very funny, although perhaps not quite as funny as I thought. But that was, to this day, the last time I've even read that scene, let alone tried to describe it to anyone else. I suppose I'm afraid I'll find out it wasn't as funny as I originally thought it was, which would not only be disappointing, it would ruin a story I've been able to live off of for nearly thirty years.

I kind of doubt that, though. Maybe I wouldn't react the same way I had that night, but then again maybe I would have. That's the kind of writer Dan Jenkins was, after all. He was, quite simply, the greatest sportswriter ever, and I'm not even going to try and equivocate by adding "one of the greatest," or "arguably," or "possibly," or any other way of trying to hedge my bets. He was the best of all time, period, and he'll continue to be for as long as his writing is in print.

Dan Jenkins died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 90, and he certainly doesn't have to worry about his work being forgotten. I'm not going to attempt to recap his career; I'll leave that to two excellent articles, here and here. And for those of you who say this story has been more about me than about Jenkins, I'd answer that this is perhaps the way it should be. One of the reasons Dan Jenkins was a great sportswriter was that he was also a great storyteller. And what better way to remember a great storyteller than with a story of my own, one that in the end really tells you more about him than it does about me. I'd like to think that he might even have enjoyed my story, although he might also have given me one of those sideway glances that you could almost see, so vividly did he describe them.

I daresay that as long as people read sportswriters (and I mean real sportswriters, which you can still find from time to time, not what passes for writing nowadays), they'll be reading the books and articles and (yes) tweets by Dan Jenkins, and learning, and laughing. What writer could possibly ask for any more of a legacy than that?

Come to think of it, maybe I'll read that story again, after all. My bet is that it will still be just as funny as it was all those years ago All the same, I'd better make sure my wife isn't trying to read to me at the same time.

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