Winning the City
Winning the City has for its overt subject a young boy’s quest to win the city basketball championship, but it really deals with that boy’s search for a place where he can be secure and know who and what he is. He has been displaced from a secure role by the callous action of a wealthy man and needs to recover his place in the world and to find a self that is not dependent on his class or social position. This is Theodore Weesner’s fourth novel, and like the others it deals with the outer and inner difficulties a young boy must struggle to overcome; the boy in this novel, like the others, is something of an outcast within a very well defined society with established codes of behavior.
The novel begins with the joyous anticipation of victory in the city basketball championship by the main character, Dale Wheeler, a fifteen-year-old junior high student. He has worked hard all summer on his game; he plays or practices until the lights are shut off at ten P.M.; he sweeps the gymnasium floor so he can have more time to practice on a real court. It is clear that he expects that his hard work will be rewarded and result in changes in his life. Yet he does have a number of recalcitrant problems.
The first problem is his father. Mr. Wheeler is an alcoholic assembly-line worker at the local Chevrolet plant. He is close to his son, but he has problems of his own. In addition to his drinking, he has had his losses. He has lost a family dry-goods store in his native Arkansas; he has lost his wife. Once he showed up drunk at a basketball game in which Dale played and embarrassed his son by dropping a whiskey bottle from his pocket. He does love his son, but he has difficulties in expressing that love; his primary way of conveying affection is to feed Dale, to bring him Coney Island hot dogs or cinnamon doughnuts. He also teaches his son what he can; he initiates him into one ritual of manhood by teaching Dale how to drive. With a realistic perspective, he warns his son not to expect too much from basketball. Dale thinks that he can change his own tenuous social situation and that of his father by his athletic victories. The relationship between father and son is one of the most effective parts of the novel, and the portrayal of a beleaguered father is masterful, especially in the father’s rich country language.
When Dale gets to the first practice of the season, Coach Burke introduces Mr. Bothner to the team. New to the area, Bothner has been an All-American basketball player, and his sons have placed first and second in the Soap Box Derby competition. Clearly, this family contrasts with Dale’s troubled one. A few days later, Dale learns that Bothner has sponsored a team, the Michigan Truckers, in the city league, eliminated Dale’s old team, and left him off the new one. Bothner wants his sons to play together, and the younger one is a point guard, Dale’s position. There are also social implications. Bothner is a supervisor at the Chevrolet plant where Dale’s father works on the assembly line, and the fathers of the new team have met to establish the team. Dale’s father works the 4:00-12:00 PM. shift and is not considered a socially presentable father.
Enraged at this exercise of power, Dale seeks solace from others. His fellow player Sonny Joe is no help; he wants to play on the new team, and he and the others are impressed by the party Mr. Bothner gives. Dale’s junior high coach is also no help:
He tells Dale that Bothner created the team so his sons could play on it and there was nothing he could do about it; he merely accepts the injustice. Dale’s father also says that there is nothing to be done, although he would visit the principal if Dale thought it might help. Dale does receive daily support from an English teacher, Miss Tarbush, who praises him and challenges his mind. Dale even mentions to her one day that he would like her to become his mother. A young girl, Zona Kaplan, also talks to Dale and makes him feel important, but she has limitations of class and social position, as the book makes clear later.
In desperation, Dale calls a boy from another junior high and asks about their city league team. The team that Dale joins, the Little M’s (for Missourians), is very different from the one at his own school. The boys are all sons of immigrants from the South who, like Dale’s father, sought work in the automobile factories of Michigan. The team is filled when Dale calls, but the father of one of...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)