Pockets of self-discovery
WHEN I lived in Seoul, I spent an afternoon in a smoke-filled bar in a high-rise building, drinking beer and watching two strangers shoot pool. Miserably isolated by my inability to communicate verbally in my new home, I found these hours blissful. Each of the male players silently acknowledged me with a nod; they circled the table carefully, sinking stripes and solids in turn. They looked sleek and lucky and undeniably cool. The combination of their powerful but relaxed movements and the sound of pool sticks breaking racks at other tables soothed me. That pool hall, an odd place of solace in the center of an enormous city, seemed to float above the traffic snarls and verbal tangles of the people on the streets below. I sensed a connection between the players that superseded language, and the longer I watched, the more convinced I became that the game was more than a hobby; it was a way of moving and thinking, a way of engaging with the world.
In her memoir “Sweet: An Eight-Ball Odyssey,” Heather Byer conveys this sense that pool, with its raw competition and camaraderie, acts as a salve for an often bleak urban existence. Byer is a thoroughly modern heroine with an obsession. The odyssey begins in New York City, where she is a mildly ambitious movie executive who pushes arugula around at swanky industry lunches and is asked to find “the next John Grisham”; meanwhile, none of her projects makes it to the big screen.
Feeling harried and hollow, she searches the urban landscape for a meaningful activity that will deliver a mix of acceptance and invisibility. She finds her answer in a “cheap, too-bright pub on the East Side” and in smoky billiard halls with names like the Ace. Almost overnight Byer enters a world where she is judged not by her appearance, earning power or marital status but by an ability to choose and execute a combination of strategically placed shots. Here community takes on the contours of a dysfunctional family in which everybody’s bad habits are not only known and openly discussed but also often the subject of tasteless jokes.
In dark rooms beneath the city’s facade, Byer begins to jigsaw together a new identity that casts off the pressures of pedigree and success. She seeks to learn a game that is “physical, graceful, animal, atavistic, sexual” -- a game in which success has as much to do with luck as it does with skill. With the help of mentors who include brilliant deadbeats, struggling alcoholics and women exuding an unconventional glamour, Byer thrives in this underbelly world, which surprises her. Her society-sanctioned assets mean nothing here.
As she struggles to learn the game, Byer discovers a competitive spirit she didn’t know she had; she learns to control her anger and her fear in a tense match; she realizes that she is lonely, sexy, flawed, frightened, more empathetic and trustworthy than she imagined. Her transformation from a painfully bored executive to a mysterious, messy and powerful woman stalking a pool table is irresistible. Byer manages her new life with aplomb; she shows up at work each morning and strolls into the pool hall each night.
Pool’s a game Byer doesn’t master quickly, and she’s not accustomed to failure. “I’ve been conditioned to excel in the classroom and the boardroom; to speak in long, forceful, articulate sentences; to hold my own in high-pressure jobs with demanding bosses,” she writes. “But this poise deflated like a punctured balloon when I walked into my first poolroom.”
Although the narrator is in her 30s, “Sweet” reads like a tender coming-of-age story, complete with awkward phases and conflicted epiphanies. (At Blatt Billiards, Byer picks out her first pool cue in a scene that has all the snap and fairy-tale ring of Harry Potter selecting a new magic wand. “It’s you,” her companion tells her.) Byer is not a great pool player: She loses and loses, she rails and throws fits, she finds instructors who teach her strategies and every so often she wins. She has doomed amorous relations with other players; she changes jobs and neighborhoods; she makes fast friends; she feels desirable one day and defeated the next; she loses her dignity; she wins it back. Byer goes from frightened beginner to swaggering middle-skill player who recites “the billiard equivalent of a Hail Mary” before taking a shot, and her league rank goes up and down in a series of pulse-pounding matches in which she squares off with players who are bigger, better and cockier. (Men and women play one another, but according to long-established rules a woman’s rank automatically begins lower than a man’s.)
Although the narrative is full of well-observed nuance and peppered with true wit, Byer occasionally employs what seem like cinematic tricks that undercut her storytelling gifts. The opening scene feels too much like a “Sopranos” episode, and Byer’s close friend Alison resembles the confidant in romantic comedies who helps the heroine sort out the inevitable foibles of her charmed life. Readers will prefer the “dark world” of the poolroom, “where a guy who looks at you wrong gets smacked and the smacker gets tossed onto a city sidewalk.” Although she is wonderfully empathetic in her descriptions of the people she befriends -- even the one who arrives at a bar covered in vomit after a disastrous alcoholic binge -- Byer’s attempt to include everyone in her cast of characters sometimes feels too scripted.
Byer wisely avoids cheap philosophical comparisons between the experience of playing pool and the game of life. Instead, she dares to be human by appearing vulnerable and ridiculous and only occasionally triumphant. This engagement in a practice purely for the love of it is a refreshing message in a culture saturated with the belief that transformation (with a gesture toward perfection) is the precursor to lasting happiness, especially for women. When Byer is poised at the edge of a pool table, ready to move a ball against a very real opponent, we feel that she has just begun to understand who she is. “I have a slash of blue chalk on my pants,” she writes. “I reek of cigarette smoke and somebody else’s cheap perfume. I am dancing. I am dark-haired and powerful. I am lovely.
“I am hooked.”
Her compelling narrative poses universal questions. Can the perks of community (encouragement, comfort, connection) co-exist with competition -- in the poolroom, in a city, in a relationship? (In one poignant exchange, Byer discovers that she won’t get a second date with someone she beats at pool.) Many of Byer’s friends think she’s nuts and offer ridicule instead of support; they don’t understand why an articulate, professional woman roams around beer-soaked pool halls with so much of her sense of self riding on winning a particular match. What Byer learns in the intimacy of a pool match is to make a big mess and try something new, even if you never excel. She acknowledges that this is not an easy task. As “an A-student trapped in a C-student’s pool game ... can I still love the game and be just an ordinary pool player? Will that be enough?” The sweetest spot in this memoir is Byer’s willingness to ask that question and live with the answer. *