Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Louis: My Story So Far

Every gymnastics book is incredibly formulaic. Overactive child worries family. Worried mother enrolls child in gymnastics. Coach sees talent. Family must cart child 20+ miles to the nearest gym because it is the best one around. Family must make sacrifices. But eventually, the talented child succeeds.

Let's face it; that's the narrative skeleton of every gymnast's biography or memoir. Which means that we, as readers, judge gymnastics books not so much on their barebones storylines, but on the flesh that the author (or ghostwriter) attaches to his narrative skeleton. And in the case of Louis: My Story So Far, there is a lot of flesh. (See photo to the left.)

That is to say that Louis's book is a far cry from the emaciated, vapid literary world of female gymnasts. Louis's book actually has something called personality, and unlike Gabrielle Douglas's Grace, Gold, and Glory, Louis's book doesn't need its own laugh track. (Nothing against her; I just can't believe Gabby's book used the acronym LOL…) Simply paging through the memoir will provide readers with laughs. I mean, just look at this photo…

And really, laughs are what this book is all about. Because, in case you haven't noticed, humor is Louis's defense mechanism.

As most gymnastics fans have heard, Louis was a hyperactive child from hell, and in the first chapter of the book, Louis explores this side of his personality. Diagnosed with ADHD, he was put on Ritalin, an odious drug in Louis's estimation. While he was taking it, he remembers constantly fighting with himself. Part of him wanted to "mess around," but his medication wouldn't let him. It restrained him, preventing him from being who he really was. For him, it was "like putting a straight jacket on." Throughout his childhood and adolescence, his mother would put him on and off the drug, and when he was on it, "it was shit."

Personally, Louis had me at the word shit. It's not because I like cussing--which I do--but because it illustrates who Louis Smith is. If you've followed his career, you know that he is a walking dichotomy. Intelligent similes roll off his tongue just as easily as crude swearing. In the London tabloids, he can be seen looking like a stumbling, drunken shit show while he wears the classiest, most fashionable clothing. And in his book, on one page, he describes his love for ballet and singing in the choir, but on the next page, he tells us about the skate park and his run-in with the police. (It's really not that scandalous; a policeman asked him to take down his treehouse in the park.) Louis Smith is high culture, and he is low culture. He is tasteful, and he is tacky. He is humble, and he is cocky. He is deep, and he is shallow. And you have to accept him for all of his contradictory quirks if you're going to enjoy this book.

At first, I found it somewhat easy to accept Louis's contradictory quirks because the opening chapters strike a balance between the many facets of his personality. But as the book thunders forth, the multitudes of Louis's personality becomes less multitudinous, and his narrative voice becomes increasingly superficial and jokey. This wouldn't be problematic if the book wasn't trying to be a memoir. Indeed, do not mistake Louis: My Story So Far for an autobiography. It does not attempt to get all the facts straight, and as a result, scores and dates are largely missing from the book. Instead, recollections and their accompanying feelings are meant to give shape to the book, and to a certain extent, they do, especially at the beginning. The first chapters are emotionally wrought while still maintaining a sense of humor, but once Louis starts to recall his elite gymnastics career, he routinely paints over his emotions with a glib patina.

Claude, Louis's father, walked out on his mother when Louis was three. Though Louis continued to speak with his dad, he and his older brother Leon were raised solely by his mother and his grandmother. As the press has recounted time and time again, his grandmother passed away before the 2009 World Championships, and in her memory, he tattooed his back. The words "RIP Nan" are scrawled across the top of his back. On either side, two angels rest on his lats, and the phrase "Missing You" appears between his shoulder blades. As he states:
"The angels are a work in progress. I still want to add the pearly gates between the angels' hands, the steps up to heaven and some clouding and shading. Heaven is bliss, it's peaceful and I believe if you do things right and take the right path in life, that's where you'll end up. So, I obviously did listen to some things at Sunday School."
Just when you think that Louis might make himself emotionally vulnerable, he cracks a joke about being a hyperactive child who didn't pay attention in school. On the one hand, the joke works because it reflects Louis's lighthearted personality. On the other hand, it leaves us starving for more. We're left longing for just one more sentence that says something meaningful about life and death. For an introspective moment in which Louis analyzes his emotions. For a reflection on his relationship with his grandmother. For an enlightening simile, like the one he used to discuss the effects of Ritalin earlier in the book. For something.

Perhaps the Amazon blurb unintentionally put it best. Once Louis began to win medals, "there was no looking back." To put it differently, once gymnastics took over his life, he did not take time to look back and process his life, and without that much-needed introspection, the book is at odds with itself. It wants to be a book that brings us closer to Louis and shows us sides of him that we've never seen. But in reality, a sense of aloofness pervades the book, as Louis is reluctant to make himself vulnerable. It's like every time we get close to him, he pulls away.

Then again, maybe introspection and vulnerability are not what you're looking for in a gymnast's book. Maybe you want a light, fun read with plenty of fuck bombs. Maybe you want to know some juicy details about Louis's life. What was his girlfriend Billie like? Did Louis sleep with Playboy playmates? Why does he thinks he should have won the pommel horse title at the 2012 European Championships? Or maybe you've been searching everywhere for a book replete with shirtless photos of Louis Smith. If that is the case, then, this book is for you.

You can download a Kindle edition of the book in both the United States ($16.79) and the U.K. (£8.00), and it's available in hardcover in the U.K. According to Amazon, it is "the perfect gift for Christmas." So why did it go on sale in July?

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Book Review: Heresy on the High Beam

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