Image courtesy of University of Chicago Press
Image courtesy of University of Chicago Press
Originally self published in 2008, Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity was brought to a wider audience this year by the good people at the University of Chicago Press (who were kind enough to let us run an excerpt earlier this month). It's been steadily garnering rave reviews in places like Slate and the Wall Street Journal. The novel is in the same shaggy, sprawling, brilliant key as DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace, but has a surprisingly accessible and engrossing plot. Casi, a young, talented public defender whose world is falling apart around him, broods over switching sides from lawyer to criminal, while still pursuing justice for his clients. Where this becomes relevant to a sports website: Part of Casi's story is told through a sparkling set of asides on the career of Wilfred Benitez, a preternaturally gifted, tragically undisciplined (and non-fictional) middleweight boxer.
In June, I (the below-initialed PB) had a chance to sit down with Sergio De La Pava and Kristi McGuire, the web editor at the University of Chicago Press over many rounds of Arnold Palmers to talk about A Naked Singularity, sports, and life. Despite finding out halfway through that De La Pava is a Steelers fan, we managed to have a civil, meaningful discussion. Below is a cutlet from said interview focusing on the sporting life.
PB: I spent a good chunk of this afternoon, while still earning my salary at my desk, watching Wilfred Benitez boxing matches, and that spiraled into boxing in general, and then back into professional wrestling.
DLP: I feel cheated. I finished the book in 2004, and with the Benitez stuff—I had to track some guy down in Alameda, California, and see if he had this tape—now you just type it into YouTube and watch the fight.
KM: I have so many questions related to this.
DLP: I’d tell my wife—this guy has a Benitez–Hamsho, no one else has this—this guy was my hero; I’d write him a letter and say, “Do you happen to have this fight?” And he’d say, “Yes.” And then I would say, “How much?,” and he’d say, “Eight bucks.” I’d send him a check.
PB: This is what I loved about why you choose Wilfred Benitez. I finally figured out my own version of the truth: which is that he approaches boxing in a lackadaisical and perfectly human way. He has this immense talent, obviously unique to him, and it’s kind of magical—having just watched this YouTube clip, which that guy probably mailed to you—it’s a Jimmy McGriff organ riff over this hypnotizing montage of Benitez slipping punches. Someone who had a next-level, generational kind of talent, who could be just incredible, but he’s also ultimately kind of a fuck-up. He doesn’t train in between fights, he loses to guys he shouldn’t lose to, and he winds up, basically, with a skull full of pudding back in Puerto Rico with no money. And that’s fine. I would say this is a life well-lived. The same thing happens in Casi’s story—it’s not a seamless, stitched-up ending. Why did you choose him? Why did you choose Benitez?
DLP: On the most superficial level, he symbolizes athletic prodigy. He’s the youngest-ever world champion. He was 17 when he won, and was a real world champion—not like now, when there are like 7 organizing bodies pushing for different weight class winners. At 17, he was advanced enough to get that title. So when Casi, in Chapter 3, reflects on the fact that he turns 24, his mind naturally gravitates to young prodigies like Mary Shelley, Eddie Van Halen—
KM: Oh, god. I love that line. Eddie Van Halen! Bobby Fischer is rolling over—
DLP: Wilfred Benitez. So that was basically the end of it, but then I started independently of the book—okay, I remembered why I love Benitez. You hear about Hearns, Haggler, Durán, but he was right in the mix with those guys, and in many ways, was prominent before the other three were. Well, not Durán. There’s that whole notion of not living up to your talent, which is an incredible thing to say about a guy who won 3 belts, but the truth of the matter is, he’s like—his relationship to Sugar Ray Leonard is akin to the relationship between Vince Carter and Michael Jordan. In the sense that—I know you’re a sports guy—Vince Carter technically can play basketball better than Michael Jordan. He’s a better outside shooter than Michael Jordan, he could pretty much do anything Michael Jordan could do. The difference was Jordan was fucking insane. Not the kind of guy you’d want to share a beer with—a real asshole. Vince Carter was like I’m really good at basketball, I’m going to play, but I’m not going to live or die around this. Sometimes the most talented people don’t get paired up with that killer need to dominate others. And with Benitez, it makes for a really friendly guy. When he loses to Sugar Ray Leonard,he looks at him and he smiles. He comes over to hug him. You see that a lot in sports, where the people who are the best, are probably not the ones you want around. Did you see Michael Jordan’s acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame? It was cringeworthy.
PB: I loved it.
DLP: It was cringeworthy in the sense of normal, human interaction. Everyone says you’re the greatest basketball player that ever lived, he couldn’t get more affirmation, and he’s got beefs—
KM: I know; I’ve seen it.
DLP: And it’s not really an appropriate time, you know.
PB: He had done everything, and won everything, and everyone in the room was there to tell him.
DLP: And it wasn’t—
PB: It wasn’t enough. He was going down a laundry list: “Fuck you, fuck you, hey fuck you, you looked at me funny once, fuck you.”
DLP: I can understand it. I have some of that in me, and I’m not proud of it.
PB: I won’t say that I respect it. Well, I respect it like I respect an angry dog.
DLP: Michael Jordan has this tremendous platform, this power, to speak out against something—like child labor, even—and he wouldn’t. That drove me nuts. I can’t understand having that much power and not using that power for good. But anyway the Vince Carter–Michael Jordan thing, or even Tracy McGrady—if you look at him, watch both of them actually play basketball, you’d be like: McGrady is better; this guy is better. McGrady and Carter were cousins that played on the same team. Benitez—the way I look into it—his story felt to me—if I were a musician, his story would be in the same key as Casi’s story. You could run them together and it would sound consonant: it wouldn’t jar.
You can buy A Naked Singularity here.