Jay Atkinson has been getting his face muddied and his body pummeled on rugby pitches since college. Now in his 50s, the novelist and Boston University writing teacher shows no signs of stopping. Atkinson’s stylish, unabashedly macho memoir is fueled by two passions: his love of grind-it-out athletic competition and the obvious joy he takes in the high-testosterone, alcohol-fueled comradeship of his fellow rugby players.
But make no mistake — this is no simple account of life in a “blood fraternity.’’ Seeded throughout come lessons and insights gleaned from three and a half decades of broken bones and bruised hearts, soaring victory and stunning loss.
The memoir opens with a young Atkinson in graduate school studying writing and playing rugby at the University of Florida. Atkinson describes how he’d crash college house parties with his teammates, taking over the music, singing loudly to “The Doors,” and then commandeering the host’s kitchen to prepare large meals for the team. His portraits of eccentric teammates, like Englishman Conrad Merry, are memorably vivid: Merry, writes Atkinson, loved listening to The Clash, getting high, and had “been beaten up by skinheads in London, had the muzzle of an automatic weapon pressed against his belly by cops searching for pot in Venezuela; and . . . chain-smoked Marlboros.” Atkinson is far from an angel himself, regularly consuming inordinate quantities of alcohol and participating in escapades of dubious wisdom.
In a typically Hemingway-esque moment, Atkinson describes hanging out with his eccentric, hard-drinking writing teacher, the novelist Harry Crews, at a bar near campus. When a bar patron insults the drunken Crews, Atkinson steps in and suddenly finds himself at the wrong end of a silver-plated .38. Another time, Atkinson gets arrested for driving without a Florida license (and in a dubious state of sobriety), finding himself in further hot water when his Florida jailers discover he’s from Massachusetts (not exactly a “get-out-of-jail-free card” down South).
Through it all, Atkinson explores the lure of rugby both on and off the pitch. The game becomes a lifestyle, an obsession, a tight-knit community, a reason to party, and a way of testing himself. Atkinson’s best writing describes the rugby scrums, where guys who look like NFL linebackers lock head and shoulders into formations resembling a horizontal pyramid, which then collides with an oncoming pyramid. A ball is then thrown into the shrinking gap between the teams. Atkinson’s role as a “hooker” is to dive into the scrum and dig out (“hook”) the ball so his team can advance it. In Atkinson’s account, the claustrophobia of these scrums is palpable: It “can feel like being trapped in a tipped-over phone booth while a gang fight rages all around you,” writes Atkinson. It’s little wonder that he’s developed such fierce loyalty to the refrigerator-size men who protect him in these confined hell-scapes.
Atkinson gets crushed numerous times, being hit so hard that his bones shatter. After winning a close, brutal game playing for a New England all-star team against a Quebec all-star team, Atkinson catalogs the day’s carnage: “I had cuts on my face and legs, a deep bruise on my thigh from getting stomped, and pulled muscles in my back that had me walking like an old man.”
There’s been no money, and scant glory, in Atkinson’s long rugby career, but the payoff, beyond the sheer joy of playing, seems profoundly personal. “The sport has seen me through rough times: childhood friendships that dissolved, thwarted ambitions in love and work, and the deaths of friends and family.’’ This last part is most poignantly displayed when his love of the game pulls him out of a spiraling funk after the death of his beloved father.
He ends this colorful account with a post-game beer in hand, laughing with his teammates, “[i]n my twilight years . . . a rugby playing Prufrock, measuring out [his] beer with coffee spoons.’’ One imagines Atkinson wiping off the mud and blood, spooling on fresh layers of tape, and diving back into the breach. Whether this makes him a hero or something else is another matter, but nobody has better explored the game (and the life) of rugby better than Atkinson.Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@