Winning the City Essay - Critical Essays

Winning the City

According to the late John Gardner, the primary job of the novelist is to create a “vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind.” In his fourth novel, Theodore Weesner, author of THE CAR THIEF and THE TRUE DETECTIVE, fulfills that requirement superbly.

Set in Detroit around 1950, Weesner’s novel centers on fifteen-year-old Dale Wheeler, a ninth-grader at Whittier Junior High. Dale lives with his father, an alcoholic who works on the line at the Chevrolet factory. (His mother walked out not long after he was born.) Determined to turn his life around, Dale has focused all of his hopes on basketball, practicing intensely and dreaming of “winning the City"--the City League of Detroit, with its fabled playoffs and its championship game downtown in a huge auditorium.

From the first pages, the reader is drawn into Dale’s world--his daydreams and aspirations, his relationship with his father, his sexual yearnings, his efforts to shape an identity for himself. To read the book is to be back in junior high school, self-conscious to the nth degree. Treated unfairly, Dale begins to perceive that it is an unjust world, marked by pervasive inequities and dominated by wealth and privilege. Yet at the same time Weesner shows how Dale is prone to blame himself for the injustices he suffers, so fragile is his pride, so vulnerable to self-hatred.

As a good sports novel should, WINNING THE CITY builds to a climactic game that would have done John R. Tunis proud. When the reader emerges from that vivid dream, a few questions may surface. Isn’t Weesner’s morality play (haves versus have-nots) a little simplistic? Aren’t some of the novel’s scenes, though rendered with skill, so generic as to be hopelessly hackneyed? (This is especially true of Dale’s sexual initiation as arranged by his teammates.) Nevertheless, WINNING THE CITY deserves a place on the same shelf as Twain and Salinger, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and A SEPARATE PEACE.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, July, 1990, p.2074.

Chicago Thibune. July 1, 1990, XIV, p.3.

Detroit News. August 29, 1990, p. F3.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, May 15, 1990, p.686.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, June 8, 1990, p.44.

USA Today July 26, 1990, p. D2.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, July 29, 1990, p.4.