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Jerome Charyn Interview

Jerome Charyn
Interview by Eric Wallenstein

Jerome Charyn is a ping-ponging man. Yes, that's right, ping-pong. He even wrote the book on it -- Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins: Ping Pong and the Art of Staying Alive.

After turning out a shelf-full of idiosyncratic tomes that range from cop stories to way-out fiction to memoirs to film criticism, Charyn has turned his attention to his passion for the dance with the paddle and ball. Part memoir and part history, Sizzling Chops bounces from Manhattan in the 1940s (where unheralded lions of the game, like Marty Reisman and Dick Miles, hustled their way through the ping-pong underworld) to China in the 1960s (when Nixon used ping pong as a tool of diplomacy) to present-day France (where Charyn, our faithful guide, battles his way through the lower-division tournaments).

Filled with bizarre characters -- Reisman and Miles in particular -- and dynamic prose, Sizzling Chops is a marvelous paean to the game and its short-lived golden age in America. While ping-pong has been shuffled into the margins of the sports world on these shores, within the pages of Sizzling Chops (and in nearly every other part of the world, for that matter) it lives on in style.

A while back, we had a chance to speak to Charyn over the phone, and it went a little something like this: How exactly did you begin to find out about the history of ping-pong in America? Through meeting Marty Reisman?

Jerome Charyn: Well, I knew Marty when he had his club [The Riverside Table Tennis Club in Manhattan]. I used to play in his club in the late '60s and it really was a landmark then. Kurt Vonnegut played there, Dustin Hoffman, Zero Mostel, Bobby Fisher -- it was a place where everybody went. Stefan Kanfer, who wrote Groucho, the biography on Groucho Marx, also played there. We all did.

It seems like ping-pong had a little more cachet in those days.  

Yeah, I think that it would still have that cachet if there was still a club around. I mean, if Marty had kept his club, I think it still would have been a West Side landmark. It's just that it disappeared, and when you have no place to play, what can you do? You go into the woodwork.

At what point did you decide to write Sizzling Chops, and what exactly prompted you to do so?

I wanted to write about ping-pong about 30 years ago, but it would have been a very different book, because at that point I was not a tournament player -- I really had no training. I hadn't been coached, and I didn't really know the insides of it. It was just a game that I loved. Then, later on, I was sitting and having lunch with a French publisher who's a friend of mine, and he said, "Why don't you do the book?" and I said, "Well, I don't think so," and then I finally said, "Okay if you want me to do it, remember it's going to be totally literary, and it's going to be totally personal, and he said "fine" -- and in 30 seconds we agreed to it. I thought it would be fun to do it, because I wouldn't have to think about selling a book…I mean, I didn't have to think about the commerce of it. I could do the book any way I wanted to.

What really amazed me about the book was that there's such a rich history with such colorful characters…

Oh yeah, and there are many more. I was just dealing with the two that I knew best, and the two that I had met, and there are a lot of French players that I could have interviewed…but I mean, Marty Reisman and Dick Miles were gods when I was younger. When I first saw Miles, I remember he looked like Humphrey Bogart, somehow -- wearing a trenchcoat, chewing gum, and very aloof -- and he just seemed like this extraordinary god-like person.

Why do you think the history of ping-pong is so unacknowledged?

Well, it's Kierkegaard who said that people are unacknowledged because no one ever wrote about them…. In order for them to be acknowledged, someone has to write about them. Ping-pong is not a game that has so many advocates, so maybe it took a long time, but [some of its players] have been acknowledged before. Marty and Dick Miles have been on television a lot, and they've given demonstrations, but I think that without a real venue, without a real place to play (and this is for over 20 years -- I think Marty folded up his club in 1980), the game just disappeared from the city, or at least from Manhattan.

Could you back up a bit and talk a little about history of ping-pong?

Well, you have to remember that the game really started after the success of Wimbledon in the 1870s. Sports manufacturers then looked for a game that could be played indoors, so ping-pong was born, but they didn't have the right ball or the right racquet -- that took another 30 years. Finally, we got the celluloid ball at the beginning of the century, and we had rubber racquets around the same time…and then, ping-pong, around 1902 and 1903, became a tremendous craze and you found it on the covers of magazines.

Marty sees it as something erotic, where young men and women who were courting would be standing across the table and just hitting the ball in a very strangely erotic fashion. But, then the game disappeared for about 10 years. By the early 1920s you had an international federation of table tennis and international tournaments. From that point on, the game was dominated by the Eastern Europeans -- by the Czechs and the Hungarians, although the English were also quite good. Then, of course, when the Second World War started, these tournaments ended.

They began again about 1947…and remember, this was before television. It was really television that killed the game as a kind of sport to be watched. But, at this point, in Wembley stadium, when you had the 1949 World Championship and the British Open, there were well over 10,000 people in the stadium. And also, there were people in Madison Square Garden when tournaments and exhibitions were held…. So, with television, and with the changing [of the paddle surface] from the pimple rubber to the sponge, the game evolved in a very new way, and the Americans never really kept up.

The game moved to Europe and to Japan and finally to China, and now, it's a very big sport in most of the European countries -- there's a European league where the very best players play, and, of course, now the best players in the world are the Chinese. Now, you have to remember, there's a very good reason for this: it's the first, or maybe the second-most popular sport in China, and there are 10 million registered players. 10 million! Also, very young kids -- if they have any talent -- leave their home and live in a kind of sports complex, go to school, and play ping-pong all day and night.

At what point did Lawrence's, the big ping-pong club in Manhattan, appear?

In the '30s, and it immediately becomes the Mecca of American ping-pong …. Lawrence's was like a training ground. Even though Marty and Dick Miles and Lou Pagliero never trained, they played matches, which was like training. Therefore, they became really great players because there was a group of players playing all the time, being obsessed with the game, and also they were playing international tournaments (even though they probably had to finance themselves).

Despite the story of Lawrence's and all of the history of the game, the game still doesn't get much respect -- at least not in the U.S.

No, it doesn't, because it's not a money game [here]. If the players earned some money through sponsoring, it would be different. In France, for instance, where the very best players are fairly wealthy because [large corporations] sponsor the equipment, it comes down to the notion of bucks. It's not a game for big bucks.

At this point, have you pinpointed what attracts you personally to the sport?

Yeah, it's one of the few sports where you have this kind of alpha wave where you're in deep concentration. When I'm really playing, I don't think about anything else. I'm totally absorbed, totally concentrating, and -- even though it's a physical game -- to me, it's very relaxing.

Is there a similarity between writing and playing ping-pong?

I think there is. There's a kind of deep relaxation, a kind of dream state that you go into, and I think the same way about writing. It's very hard, but once you get into it and once you find the music of the sentences, it's analogous to finding the music of the game. Each game has its own music, and when you find it, then the points just become interesting, and the game begins to flow. It's not so much about winning, it's about -- I don't know how to say it -- it's about finding the kind of music. I don't want to use the term "Zen" because that's not right. You don't necessarily play to win. If I play a great game and lose it, I feel much better than if I play a lousy game and win it. It's not really about winning and losing. It's about stretching and playing as best you can.

What's striking to me about the game is the aesthetic side of it, the capacity one has to display their individual technique …

Yeah, it's very individual. Each player has a thumbprint, and in that way it's like writing: There are no two players that play the same way, and they may even be trained by the same coach. It's a kind of body language.

Are you working on another book at the moment?

I'm finishing up a novel on Stalin in the 1930s, and his dealings with writers -- many of whom he killed. It's just an extraordinary period. The kind of talent that his country had that he destroyed is just mind-boggling.

I'm finishing that up, and I want to do a book on Broadway, on the Broadway culture of the '20s and '30s, with Arnold Rothstein. It was the first cultural landscape that was open 24 hours a day. It was always lit up.

And, of course, ping-pong was a big part of that culture …

Ping-pong was a part of that culture, and it's also when night becomes day, and day becomes night. It was really during the day when most people slept. The reversal and the sort of outlaw culture -- that's what I like about it.

Are outlaw characters, such as Marty and Dick Miles, the kind of characters you are generally fascinated with?

Yeah, I think so. My cops are the same way, and I do feel a tremendous affinity for those people who are marginal to the culture, and don't fit in…and that's why ping-pong is a perfect sport.

It certainly seems to attract oddballs.

Yes, but suppose one day that you discover that Bill Clinton is a ping-pong player? It just takes one person who's there at the very center, and if we discover that he's a hidden ping-pong player, that would change the whole landscape. You know, we live in a world of publicity, and you can recreate and change reality to anything you want if you just have the right line. So I think ping-pong could change overnight. It's all hype.

Yeah, it probably would. Of course, it goes without saying that there's a real downside to that kind of a culture …

There is a downside, but everything revolves around success and money, so if one could earn money as a ping-pong player, then it would change completely. The game is still great to watch, even with the new kind of ball [a larger, 40-millimeter ball]. So, it's not a question of the old style versus the new style, it's just a question of how do you get attention to the sport.

When you're in New York, is there a bookstore that you like to frequent?

There's one called The Biography Bookshop*, which is very close to me -- it's really very, very good, and I like to go there. They're very friendly, and they have good books, which is important.

Are there any books that you generally recommend?

The book that keeps fascinating me is The Great Gatsby. To me, it's miraculous how Fitzgerald was able to write that book, and it's even more contemporary now than it was when it was written. The word "perfect" maybe isn't right, but to me it's totally moving, and so incredibly crafted, and it just hasn't dated. It's miraculous. It's one of those strange miracles how everything came together for him in one book. He never was able to do that again, but once was enough.

What about contemporary authors? Are there any that you especially like?

I like Don Delillo very much. I don't read as much as I would like to, because when you're working all day, for 10 or 12 hours, it's not that easy to read seriously. But I like good fiction -- crazy fiction.


* Biography Bookshop, 400 Bleecker St. at W. 11th Ave., NYC (212)807-8655