Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509
A brain-damaged tennis professional, French Edward, and his sidekick and unofficial manager, Baby Levaster, are a most unlikely pair. Edward is presumably the happiest man on the court and may also be the prettiest. Levaster, a self-hating, hard-drinking, part-time physician, is quite unattractive. In a segmented dream memory, Levaster revisits the often picaresque adventures of their collective past. He and Edward first became acquainted as high school athletes in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Levaster was a better tennis player initially, but after the local college tennis coach, Dr. James Word, begins working with Edward, it is his life that is changed by the sport.
French Edward is not grateful to his mentor. He discovers that his mother, Olive, is having an affair with the bald but virile Dr. Word, and he senses that he himself is also the object of his coach’s sexual interest. Edward is so filled with hatred that he wants to blot out what offends him. He challenges Word to a tennis match that he intentionally prolongs in the hope of driving his sixty-year-old opponent to heart failure. Instead, Dr. Word has a stroke, which costs him almost all of his sight and the part of the brain that monitors the amplitude of his speech. These handicaps do not stop him from zealously following the career of the man he calls his son. Word, accompanied by his brother, Wilbur, pursues French Edward from tournament to tournament.
At first, Edward is only marginally conscious of this continued attention; he has his own priorities. While studying at Louisiana State University, he meets and marries a Franco-Italian woman. Her father has grown rich from pinball and wrestling concessions and sees in Edward’s mastery of an upper-class sport the family’s only claim to glory. Baby Levaster responds to Edward as the embodiment of qualities that he is painfully aware that he personally lacks: youthful beauty and physical elegance. Levaster periodically abandons his medical practice to follow Edward on the professional tennis circuit.
Word follows Edward also, but mostly at a distance, and only rarely does he confront Edward after a match and give him a “hard, affectionate little nip of the fingers,” an act that drives the tennis pro to the boiling point.
On a bridge over the Mississippi River, Edward finally confronts the family secret that has tormented him for so long. In the presence of his parents, Word, and Levaster, he informs his father of Olive’s continuing infidelity. In response, Word runs from the group as if to cast himself over the railings of the bridge, Edward runs as if to stop him, and both men plummet into the river. Apparently, only French Edward survives.
Levaster awakens from his combination of memory and dream just in time to drive Edward to another tournament. His mental powers impaired by his near-drowning, but his athletic body functioning superbly on automatic pilot, Edward is about to serve match point when Levaster whispers as if his whole existence depended on that single act, “Hit it, hit. My life, hit it.”