Shehan Karunatilaka at WORD

It feels apt to write of WORD Brooklyn on a rainy Tuesday night, as the store has long proven shelter from the proverbial storm. A browser’s paradise (and for the sake of remaining afloat, hopefully a paying customer’s one as well), it’s where we’ll go in the midst of an invasion from the undead Martians, or the sulphuric hail of brimstone that will cement a Romney win in November. WORD’s near-nightly reading events, while classy and informative each time out, can thankfully also be as boozy and eccentric-packed as Cheers. Everybody knows your name, but Sam Malone didn’t carry the complete Soft Skull catalog, and Shelley Long’s sing-song patter never matched the sharp wits of WORD’s band of brick-and-mortar siren shop keeps.

This evening was a celebration. Slabs of an impressive cake were dished out, and prosecco flowed like wine. The raison de fete was the capture of the Commonwealth Book Prize by the evening’s reader, Shehan Karunatilaka, freshly caught for his debut novel The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. If “capture” sounds like a more stiffly aggro turn of phrase than we’d typically use for, I should add that Mathew is a sports story – cricket to be exact – which is to say a tale of players fumbling at the precipice of goals. It’s a self-professed “drunken detective story” of W.G. Karunasena, an aging, perpetually smashed sportswriter trying to sniff out what became of Pradeep Mathew, the pitching prodigy trickster who has vanished mysteriously after playing all too briefly for Sri Lanka’s dismal pro team of the mid-80s. Outside of America the book is called Chinaman, in reference to a left-handed pitcher who slopes his throws into a right-handed hitter, not unlike a knuckleballer or curveball pitcher in baseball. It is a crackerjack premise with prose that delivers on its promise, delivering at once hard-boiled sleuthing, poached family pathos, and sunny-sided wit. I would call the story a “sticky wicket”, but then we’ll never get out of this bargain basement of zingers I’ve dug us into.

Karunatilaka is a lively, prepared speaker, at once boisterous yet dignified. Authors who are bad at reading their own work behave like ashamed louses walking into a peep show. Those who read well – and Karunatilaka does it as well as anyone – act as hosts of a de facto house party, offering a variety of scenes that tantalize and form a filling meal. There’s warmth to him, as if he were reading by campfire light, and his readership replied in turn, leaning forward and dangling upon his every grin-inducing phrase. We were a huddled group, but one that seemed so happy to be there, as if we we’d walked off from the wet streets into something sweetly intimate.

I’m an avid viewer of sports conventional and weird alike. To have to choose between a subscription to ESPN or the bowling/luge/skeet shooting enterprise that is ESPN3 would be a tough call. I was thus pleased that the evening’s subtitle “Cricket for Americans” delivered an informative overview of the game’s trivia and triumphs. Did you know that the first international cricket game was played not by overseas squads, but by America and Canada in 1844? That sporting goods pioneer Spalding shortly thereafter branded the game as the United States’ national pastime? That pro games can last for as long as five days? That the game’s ball is made of seamed leather, the bat willow?  That Jason Alexander, TV’s George Costanza, recently called cricket “a gay sport”?  “He apologized to gay people, but not to cricketers,” notes Karunatilaka.

A business major turned advertising copywriter, Shehan first imagined the world’s best cricketer having the misfortune of playing for mid-80’s Sri Lanka in 2007. He began waking up at 4am each morning to write before going off to his day job at 8. “The first month,” says Karunatilaka, “you’re half asleep and nothing’s happening.” He took a six month hiatus that became two and a half years of drafts. Once W.G. emerged as his lead, Karunatilaka began frequenting the taverns stationed by W.G.’s ilk of cricket obsessed old-timers. “I had to get to the pub by three o’clock in the afternoon,” says Karunatilaka: by six, the fanatics on whom W.G is based were skunk drunk. Karunatilaka compares the enthusiasm of such barflies to a popular soccer t-shirt he’s seen of late throughout Wales which reads, “One Day You’ll Find a Goal You Want That’ll Make You Want to Settle Down and Marry”. Throughout the book W.G wonders if alcohol has brought misery to the world, or kept it at bay. “In real life, watching a drunkard gets tedious,” says Karunatilaka. “But if you get a drunk to narrate your story, you can get away with a lot more.”

As pertinent factoids go, I’m particularly pleased to have learned post-Wiki’ing that Sri Lanka is the only place on Earth to which cinnamon is native. How might immersion in something so pungent and arousing to the tongue affect one’s brain, one’s character, or even one’s language? So to does the culture of cricket seep in and out of the island’s complex political sphere. During one hotly contested match between Sri Lanka and Australia’s national teams, long-combative resistance movement and M.I.A. fan club the Tamil Tigers ceased fire against the Sri Lankan military, only to begin attacks again once Sri Lanka started losing the game. Shehan and friends mistook the sight and sound of the bombings for local fans celebrating a win too early with fireworks. One Sri Lankan reader in the crowd at WORD brought news that there’s been a wealth of press throughout that country for Mathew, despite the book taking some coy swipes at the policies of a government that is at times quick to quell or censor content. Shehan notes the book would be more scrutinized by such forces if it wore its politics on its sleeve. There is a rich tradition of satire in Sri Lanka’s theater and other fiction, while journalists making similar jabs take heat from local government.

Perhaps most curious among all of this new knowledge is that cricket is not necessarily a natural fit for Sri Lanka: it is an expensive game, and one brought by colonizers. Karunatilaka recently pondered with a Nigerian writer why the same game didn’t take off nearly to the degree soccer did when the British seized Africa, or why soccer isn’t the more beloved sport in Sri Lanka, where the climate and average body type seem suited for it. “Maybe we like standing around waiting for something to happen,” he says. “And it’s the only game you can play professionally with a pot belly.

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