Robert Lipsyte Sam Elkin - Essay

Sam Elkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his detached style and writing rhythms, Lipsyte makes "Assignment: Sports" the unsentimental report about sports figures and sports. "The sweetness drained out of the afternoon," he writes in a long piece about Muhammad Ali. Not only does this image pungently rise off the printed page, it is the quintessence of what the book is about—the winners, the losers, the in-betweeners…. [The] book makes it because finally you realize that only the background is sports.

Which means you don't have to be a fan or even knowledgeable about sports to understand Lipsyte's own admission that "the crowd roared with a bloodlust that never fails to frighten me at prizefights." Or the Russian weight-lifter, his competitive years behind him, recalling "the salty pleasure of the white moment" when he won every world weight-lifting title in the Rome Olympics of 1960. Then, after attempting a comeback which fails, "the pleasure is gone forever and only the salt remains."

This is no-nonsense writing in a field too often drowned in bathos and outright dishonesty. Even Lipsyte's choice of subjects—a 15-year-old caddying in his first pro tournament, a world's champion eater, girl athletes in wheelchairs competing for the Paralympic Team—shows a writer concerned about characters, what they think and feel and how they act in human circumstances.

The "new journalism," this nonfiction style is called in our time. It is, in fact, an old technique, used by the best fiction writers since the genre was invented. Robert Lipsyte's public will need no reminder of his skills in this department. Readers meeting him for the first time, regardless of age-group, have a rare treat in store.

Sam Elkin, "For Young Readers: 'Assignment: Sports'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 31, 1970, p. 14.