The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese. Harper Perennial. 345 pp. $15.99.
I found this book disturbing, unnervingly so, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Writing about it may help.
Nevertheless, it has all the Abraham Verghese virtues. It’s beautifully written, full of interesting detail about Verghese’s life, about medicine and his medical practice, about the man who became his tennis partner. Verghese is honest to a fault, and doesn’t spare himself any more than he spares this friend who eventually gave in to addiction.
But a question I have about Verghese—which I also have about various brilliant friends I’ve met through the years: where does he get the energy, to say nothing of the time? The last I heard, being a physician was a full time occupation and then some. Verghese has combined that with being a bestselling author, writing three substantial books and articles for a variety of publications. Now it turns out that tennis is not a casual pastime: he’s been involved with the sport for years, has tried various schemes to improve his game, has kept a series of tennis notebooks which he’s filled obsessively through the years. Obsessive is the word. I’ve been a swimmer for thirty years, and love it, but I don’t keep a notebook.
With all these strains, and the responsibility of being a husband and father to two boys, it’s no surprise that his marriage collapses partway through this book. We saw the beginning of the collapse in My Own Country. He mentions various problems, but one must have been that he was so busy.
In any case, when he found himself at a new job in El Paso, he was delighted to discover that one of the third-year students in his group, an Australian named David Smith, not only played tennis, but had played briefly on the professional tour. Verghese’s game is nowhere near a professional level, and even though David hadn’t played for some time, didn’t even have a racket, the two men find a way to play together where they can both get exercise, relax from their difficult days, David can give Abraham some mild instruction, and they can grow together as friends. Their friendship was mildly problematic, because Verghese was also David’s supervisor in the hospital. For most of the book, that didn’t seem a problem.
Friendship may be too mild a term. I don’t like the word bromance, but it seems appropriate for this relationship, in which the men do a lot of good for each other, come to love each other, and seem right on the verge of sexual attraction. Verghese’s marriage has ended, he moves into a bachelor pad which he hardly furnishes at all, is living more or less like a grad student, not an especially mature one (while his wife in the meantime is thriving). The two men were important emotional supports for each other. They loved each other.
I was surprised that a man so mature in many ways was not taking better care of his life, but my real disturbance was about David. This was a man who, in his own way, was as multi-faceted as Verghese. He was an excellent medical student and intern, one of Verghese’s best. He had been a professional tennis player who probably could have continued on the tour if he’d been able to find a sponsor. He was good-looking and charming, extremely attractive to women; we find out eventually what a lady’s man he was. But he’d also been a cocaine addict in the past, a street person, a fact that Verghese only discovers well into their friendship, and by the end of the book he has relapsed badly and—spoiler alert—taken his own life. He seemed to have so much going for him, and he threw it all away for what amounted to a few weeks of cocaine.
There’s no use hiding that fact in a review. That’s what the book is about.
I have puzzled over addiction for years, reading about it and talking with a friend who is a substance abuse counselor. I’ve written about it in several places. I don’t feel superior to David Smith. I actually feel grateful that my addictions, as troublesome as they are, are not to drugs, especially ones that leave you down and out. We’re all vulnerable to addiction. But it seems that certain substances are so addictive it’s almost impossible to resist them.
Despite his many talents and attractions, there were things that obviously troubled David. He had an absolutely gorgeous girlfriend with whom—Verghese couldn’t help noticing—he was constantly fighting; it turned out he was compulsively unfaithful, apparently because he had such low self-esteem that he had to prove himself by winning women over. He eventually found a second girlfriend but exhibited the same behavior with her. David too kept notebooks, but his were about sexual fantasies, and acting them out. After one relapse where he went immediately into rehab, he became convinced that his cocaine addiction was really just a feature of this sex addiction, that sex was the real problem.
There was a moment early in the book where Verghese overheard David calling his parents in Australia, asking them for money, and it was obvious that his relationship with them was stiff and formal, that in some fundamental way they didn’t approve of him, that there was probably nothing he would ever do that would get their approval. I’m reading a lot into a single phone call. But that seemed to be the import of it.
I understand that it can be a difficult thing when your parents don’t approve of you. But you cheat on your girlfriends constantly, seek out sexual companionship from all kinds of women, take a drug that you know is deadly, all because of some problem with your parents? Can that be true?
If not, what was? Why did he throw away a life that many people would have loved to have.
I believe that ultimately, addiction is what we turn to because we cannot face the shining present moment. Life as it is is too much for us, and we run away. But if we’re afraid of life, what’s the alternative? And what does it take for us to relax into life’s simple beauty?
 I especially felt that way because there is a passage in My Own Country in which a gay man talks about how stupid straight men are when their marriages break up, they moved into unfurnished apartments and hang nothing on the walls, have no idea how to take care of themselves. Verghese wrote this passage, though he was quoting another man. But then he lived exactly that way. Even worse.
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