Diabolical game

On the surface, Wille Thompson’s debut comic novel “Scratch Golfer” has several handicaps against it. It’s about golf, the devil, temptation and selling your soul to hit par, which sounds like a movie pitch for Vince Vaughn. And if you recognize the literary antecedant to the protagonist (hint, his name is Webster Daniels), you could almost write the book yourself.

wille-thompson-scratch-golferIf that’s not enough, the novel is supposed to be funny, and it is set in Charlotte, North Carolina, a New South city that — and I say this as someone who grew up there — resembles a junior Atlanta. It’s a city where the NFL owner bragged that his team will go to the Super Bowl within a decade (that was 15 years ago), and where words such as “world class” are bandied about without irony. Charlotte is also best known for three major additions to our national culture, two of which it would rather everyone else forgot: NASCAR, professional wrestling and Jim Bakker.

Which goes to show how wrong impressions can be, because “Scratch Golfer” is a damn funny story, and Thompson an undiscovered gem of a writer.

Webster Daniels’ life centers around three things, his job overseeing ad campaigns at a small agency, his wife and family and golf, and not necessarily in order of importance, but possibly in competence. Despite shooting over 90 lately, Web has a neat, comfortable world, and it begins to come apart at the seams when the agency, wanting to land as a client a Japanese maker of golf clubs, passes over Web and hires Richard Thomas III (aka “The Turd”), a slick go-getter who has plans of his own.

The Turd’s arrival at the agency coincides with a new arrival at Lone Oak Golf Club in the form of Aristotle Mann, tall, tanned, dressed in a white that can blind and whose smile can light up a room. In addition to knowing your handicap and how you did at last year’s club championships, he also gives golf lessons and, for the right price, will give you golf balls guaranteed to help you make par. Just ignore the “666” printed on them.

So you can pretty much tell from the beginning where this story is going, but the fun of “Scratch Golfer” is in Thompson’s prose. He laces the golf talk with footnotes that riff on such arcana as golf pros’ nicknames such as Scooter or Risty or Skipper (“nicknames that are normally the property of a child of six or the neighborhood mutt”); the difference between Nassaus and Skins and how the Beer Curve and help and hurt you. He’s also quick on the variations in Southern speech, such as “bless your little heart.” Believe me, if you’re told this, it’s not a compliment.

And while the plot may go where you expect, to a climactic game between Daniels and Thomas, how it is resolved will surprise you. One hears faint echoes of Terry Pratchett’s work there, and that’s not a bad thing.

“Scratch Golfer” is that rariety of rarities: a book that’s beautiful to hold, funny to read (and re-read) and worth every penny.

NOTE: This review has been edited to remove references to self-publishing. I received a very nice e-mail from Gavin Sinclair, owner of Mainland Press, who corrected my understanding of the relationship between Wille Thompson and Mainland. I regret the error.

How did I get this book?: Bought. Note: I know Wille Thompson through the Comics Curmudgeon web site, and he even offered me a review copy, but I preferred to buy it instead.

All categories are ranked 1-15 except for bonus, which is 1-10.
Score: 88

Genre: 14
Realism: 14
Character: 14
Setting: 14
Theme: 12
Style: 13
Bonus: 10. This is a beautifully printed book with well-designed pages that are a pleasure to look at. Plus, it’s set in my hometown. How could I not give it a 10?

What do these numbers mean?
Other links to “Scratch Golfer”