Rules for Becoming a Legend by Timothy S. Lane

Rules for Becoming a Legend“Basketball to Columbia City is mass to church: a weekly expression of faith. And Jimmy Kirkus was once anointed savior.” But now it’s pitch black in the small Oregon town’s high school gym, aside from the neon red exit sign, and 16-year-old Jimmy is in sprinting position. He doesn’t shoot. He doesn’t score. Instead, he runs full-speed ahead, and WHAM!, slams face front, eyes open, into the brick wall below the hoop. Then he does it again. And again, until he’s flat on his back, forehead oozing with blood. Jimmy “Kamikaze” Kirkus is down for the count.

So goes the deeply disturbing (not to mention mildly fascinating) opening scene of Rules for Becoming a Legend, Timothy S. Lane’s debut novel. Of course, the most obvious question is: Why did Jimmy do it?

As with any self-destructive teenage behavior, the answer isn’t simple. Nor is Lane’s dizzying attempt at providing the explanation. In subsequent alternating chapters that jump back in time before the event or forward through its aftermath, each one labeled accordingly (i.e. “Jimmy Kirkus not yet born — seventeen years until the wall” or “Jimmy Kirkus, sixteen years old — eighty-two days after the wall”) and focusing on a different character’s point of view, the circumstances surrounding Jimmy’s unraveling are slowly revealed, piece by devastating piece, and the patchwork result can be disorienting.

This is compounded by the fact that Lane devotes some chapters to describing the downfall of Todd “Freight Train” Kirkus, Jimmy’s father. He, too, was tapped for the NBA while still in high school and was heralded by Columbia City’s townsfolk as basketball’s next big thing. Instead of realizing his dreams, however, he buckled under the stress (and a faulty knee), throwing his chance at success away in favor of marrying his pregnant high school fling and getting a job at the Van Eyck Pepsi plant.

But stick with the overstuffed narrative you must because Jimmy’s heartbreaking story is worth reading — not just for the fun of whipping through adrenaline-raising basketball scenes written in the addictive style of a “Friday Night Lights” episode, but for the deeper understanding that comes from savoring the quieter, meditative moments that follow and watching Jimmy struggle to find his footing as sadness and misfortune seep into the dark corners of his young life.

Like many teenagers (and his father before him), Jimmy shoulders a heavy burden. Though he earned his basketball stud-status as early as kindergarten, remaining on top of his game grows tougher and tougher, especially after his jealous teammates begin to feed off his weakness and nickname him Jimmy Soft. Then there’s the pressure of ignoring what’s going on at home. His father’s depressed, his dissatisfied mother’s  never there (especially now that her attentions have shifted to a handsome doctor at the clinic where she works), his grandfather’s one step away from the loony bin (think Paul Newman’s portrayal of Max Roby in  Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls”), and he and his younger brother Dex have grown apart. In small-town Oregon where everyone knows everyone’s business and the competition to succeed can be fierce, how much can one kid possibly take?

There’s a plot bomb I’m not mentioning (half-spoiler alert, though astute readers will probably see it coming), the proverbial “last straw” that triggers Jimmy’s downward spiral. But it’s the choices he makes after the wall incident that make for more compelling reading. For as Lane writes in the epilogue, “in the end we are never measured by the times we got knocked down, bowled over, smashed in. We are measured by the other times. The times when we got back up, gathered ourselves together, undid the dents, walked away. To love something without faults is an easy love. To love something just limped in, just dragged through, just got up again, that is a love to know about, to tell about.”

Despite its minor flaws, Lane’s first book is a promising effort — and arguably one that’s also suitable for a young adult audience because of its spot-on portrayal of the pitfalls that can cripple adolescence. Oregonians and sports fans will relish the local references and basketball lingo (Lane graduated from the University of Oregon, worked for a time as a sports reporter after college, and lives in Portland). And as for Jimmy Kirkus’s rules for becoming a legend — Rule #7: Never Flinch; Rule #11: Be Bold; Rule #20: When You Do Talk, Have Something to Say? They work for writing a fine novel too.

Originally ran in the Oregonian (March 11, 2014)

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