Here's a sentence of critical praise I never expected to utter: The descriptions of basketball games in this novel are riveting. The novel that's elicited this aberrant compliment is The Falconer, by Dana Czapnik. It's a coming-of-age story set in early 1990s New York about an athletic 17-year-old girl named Lucy Adler.
Lucy feels most like herself when she's playing basketball. Because she doesn't try to conform to gender norms of the time, Lucy faces ostracism at school. The Falconer is a crossover book: it could be classified as a YA novel; it certainly will also appeal to adult readers, like me.
Coming of age in the New York of the 1960s and '70s, the closest I got to playing ball was bouncing a pink Spaldeen on the sidewalk. Girls didn't play on many sports teams in those pre-Title IX days, which maybe accounts for why I'm not much of a sports fan now. But, Lucy's sweaty, all-in passion for basketball, which Czapnik captures so vividly in The Falconer, gives me a sharp sense of what I missed out on.
Lucy's Jewish and Italian family is middle class and lives on the Upper West Side, when that would have still been possible. Her best friend from childhood is a handsome rich boy named Percy Abney. He's also a really good basketball player, which adds to his popularity, even as it makes Lucy — who's seen as too-tall and too-fierce — a freak.
Basketball is their chief bond, although Lucy nurses a serious crush on Percy. As she tells us in the midst of playing one-on-one against him, colliding collarbones into shoulders, "Contact like this is what I live for."
One night, though, after going to the planetarium together and smoking a lot of dope, they wind up having sex in his family's townhouse. Afterwards, Percy coolly advises Lucy not to "get weird" on him.
Lucy is crushed. Walking home on a deserted West End Avenue afterwards, she pulls her smelly basketball warm-ups over her face and cries. "I wanted to be his secret discovery. But I am nothing. Just another stupid girl."
In the tradition of classic New York stories, Lucy does a lot of walking and following her as she roams through vanished or now altered New York places is another pleasure of this novel. We're taken into her cousin's crummy tenement on the Lower East Side; grab "a slice" with her at the corner pizzeria; and tag along as she rides the subway (ironically) to her senior prom.
One place that's especially important to her is The Falconer statue in Central Park: It's a real statue, much vandalized over the years, of a young boy in Shakespearean-type costume releasing a falcon into the air. Lucy tells us she loves it because "It's reminiscent of the feeling when you hit the perfect jump shot."
Some breathless blurbs of The Falconer have likened Lucy to Holden Caulfield, but I think the more fitting comparison is to Francie Nolan, heroine of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Like Francie, Lucy is self-aware and glazed over with a city-girl toughness; she's distinguished, not by prettiness, but by determination.
Nowhere does that determination blast through more powerfully than in her frequent accounts of playing basketball. Here's one from the end of the novel, where Lucy describes playing a pick-up game with a bunch of guys on a public court:
"[One guy] dribbles the ball between his legs a few times. Briefly loses composure. A life below the rim. I could steal it easy. His ball handling's shaky. But then everyone on the court will know that I'm not some trifle and they'll get angry that a girl just made them look like asses and I'll get double-teamed with a heat and my game will be done. The trick is to let the pot boil slowly. ... Let them think you're just average or "good for a girl" and then slowly, slowly, slowly begin to let your true self shine. That's the only way to avoid feeling the jealous, embarrassed rage of a dude who's been beat."
There's so much more going on in The Falconer than "just" basketball, but as folks I know who love the game tell me, this seemingly speedy game slows down for good players: They can see everything happening on the court — every player, every movement, every possibility — with startling clarity. In The Falconer, Dana Czapnik displays this same gift: In bringing Lucy to life, she sees the whole game.