There are two Jonathan Wilsons writing about soccer in a knowledgeable way. One is Jonathan Wilson from the Guardian, arguably the foremost journalistic expert on tactics in the modern game, the other is Jonathan Wilson, the Tufts University Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, who covered the 1994 World Cup for The New Yorker and who covered the 2010 World Cup for the Faster Times, in the persona of a slightly demented Diego Maradona.
It’s hard for me to write about the latter Jonathan Wilson’s fast-paced memoir “Kick and Run, Memoir with Soccer Ball” — a tale that weaves the author’s passion for soccer through his life — because his dreams and realities so closely mirror my own in crucial ways. Although the details of his childhood troubles in London, his relationship with his mother, his time in Israel and the writing experiences mentioned above bear no direct relationship to mine 20 years later, his journeys through Judaism, Zionism, British and American academia into middle-class American middle age share the same outline.
Although he has more successfully used academia to straddle bohemia and bourgeoisie than I did, we both go to sleep dreaming of goals we — or more often now, our favorite teams — scored. Wilson’s knee injury means he has played his last Sunday morning pick up game, while I still struggle on. But the poignant mentions of the deaths (cancer and traffic accident) of his co-players sound a warning knell over my own beloved cohort of Sunday morning strugglers.
Whether self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing, autobiographies are almost all, by definition, self-involved. “Kick and Run” is no exception but, as befits a teacher of creative writing (and a canny old soccer player), Wilson gets the pace right. His life might have some excellent episodes in London, Oxford, New Jersey, Israel and New York, but he over-writes none of them. The anecdotes are spot on — Tina Brown’s cameo is as brief as is necessary — and the more profound connections he brings up; to his mother, his family’s indirect relation to the Holocaust, his sons’ relationship to his own soccer passions, his own awareness of mortality are all given weight but not false solemnity.
Like drawing, learning a musical instrument and table manners, good writing about oneself seems to be a skill that is less and less practiced. Knowing what is important about yourself and what you have learned — knowing when you’ve been an ass and should be laughed at — is a vital skill for an increasingly shrill and self-righteous age. And for a democracy increasingly obsessed with ignorant yells for attention of 140 characters or fewer, a measured tone of reflection such as this suggested by the professor of rhetoric, would be a blessed relief.
So, for those of you whose reading clubs haven’t chosen a book for the World Cup, I think this is the one. Or maybe that’s just my own self-indulgence!