Off The Deep End By W. Hodding Carter
To talk any sort of trash about W. Hodding Carter or his newest book Off the Deep End is a joyless task that is akin to shooting Bambi because you need to eat something for dinner. He comes off as a harmless and friendly guy who wants to share his life story with you in the folksiest manner possible. Said life story is a familiar one and follows the common man tries to achieve the extraordinary arch slavishly. Carter is a 41-year-old man living in a broken marriage under a mountain of debt, so he does what you or I would do and decides to train to become an Olympic swimmer.
Anybody familiar with George Plimpton's 1967 classic, Paper Lion, will find themselves right at home in this book. It would be awesome if we could sit here and say that Carter rises above the conventions, and that his underdog tale blossoms into something beautiful and artistic, but that is not the case. What he does deliver, to his credit, is a book that is accessible, readable and relatable.
Stories such as these are often times told in blog form first so that the truest fans can have the experience of following along in real time. Carter isn't much of a modern man so he goes straight for the publication (remember the debt), which is perfectly respectable as well. As a narrator he makes for pleasant company and tells a story that is unremarkable, but still worth telling. Often times, as a crutch, he leans on predictable devices such as a blanket statement ("I was thinking I would do great in this meet") only to reverse course and explain why his preconceived notions were dead wrong.
We tag along as he goes from meet to meet to meet - some are successes others are not - but never are we invited to share in the gravity of his situation. If he sucks one week, well, no matter he'll just dig deeper next week, apply some can do spirit and magically all will be right in the world again. The image of himself that Carter is trying to project is that of a big-hearted family man who is more wholesome than wholesome, but at times he lets the real world slip into his prose. On more than one occasion he comes off as a creeper as he makes mildly perverted comments about the various females that litter the moment.
As luck would have it though his naivete feels so genuine that you never doubt that he really is the man he thinks he is. Throughout the course of his Olympic training Carter gets to experience some thrilling exercises, such as swimming from island to island down in the Caribbean or entering a race that goes around Manhattan. These stories are unique and almost worth reading the book for, but not quite because he doesn't know how to properly milk them for the drama that they could provide. Instead he finds himself going off on tangents about blase topics such as the substandard quality of the water in New York.
It is strange that the entire book is about his struggle to get into the Olympics at his advanced age, but in the end he neglects to tell you whether or not he triumphed over his challenges. One would have to do some Internet research of their own if they wanted to discover that. The book is ultimately just fine. Not good, not bad. Just the kind of thing you had to read and summarize back in 4th grade because your teacher assigned it to you. It has no cuss words, and contains a neatly packaged set of life lessons. It's not a terrible existence for a book but it is not an honorable one either.
Author: W. Hodding Carter
Publisher: Algonquin Press
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