From the beginning Oliver Walzer is a natural--at ping-pong. Even with his improvised bat (the Collins Classic edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde) he can chop, flick, half-volley like a champion. At sex he is not a natural, being shy and frightened of women, but with tuition from Sheeny Waxman, fellow member of the Akiva Social Club Table Tennis team, his game improves. And while the Akiva boys teach him everything he needs to know about ping-pong, his father, Joel Walzer, teaches him everything there is to know about "swag." Unabashedly autobiographical, this is an hilarious and heartbreaking story of one man's coming of age in 1950's Manchester.
First published in the U.K. in 1999, the stateside latest (after The Finkler Question) from Man Booker winner Jacobson chronicles the mordantly funny (and highly autobiographical) coming-of-age of Oliver Walzer as he contends with his neurotic Jewish family in 1950s Manchester, England; struggles to find his way with the ladies; and, most crucially, develops into a Ping-Pong champion. At the heart of the novel is the intertwining of the sport and Oliver's burgeoning love life ("Even my erotic dreams had a ping-pong component"). Walzer is deeply anxious about his sexuality, creating elaborate collages combining his family's photo albums and pinups from lad magazines, but it's a trip to the Akiva social club that proves fateful for the awkward adolescent, as it's there where he meets the older boys of the local Ping-Pong team who lead him, for better or worse, to an improved Ping-Pong game and something of an understanding of women. Jacobson spares no painful or uncomfortable moments, and while the notion of a novel of Ping-Pong may not sound like the most enticing offer, Jacobson writes with such verve, and his sense of humor is so sharp, that he could turn a novel of basket weaving into a ripsnorter.