by Jerry Waxler
One of the best memoirs I have read is about a guy who wants to score 10 points in bicycle racing. Whether or not he achieves his cycling goal, Ten Points by Bill Strickland gets 10 points from me for delivering everything I want from a memoir; dramatic tension, passionate love among lovely people, a complex and troubled villain, a battle against obstacles. And the ending fulfills the dramatic tension established in the beginning. It even has a geographical tie for me. It’s set in the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, just a few miles from where I live. And the writing contains some of the most lyrical phrasing I have seen this year, providing that elusive buzz that used to keep my nose glued to the classics, hoping for a phrase or concept that would set my mind dancing. The only memoir whose prose moved me more was Beryl Markham,’s West with the Night. When I look at the two books side by side, I am awed by the diversity of human experience.
West with the Night was about a woman coming of age amidst the wonders of Africa in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, when lions and elephants owned the land. As a little girl she hunted with the tribesmen. Then in her teens, she rode her horse wild and free throughout the region. Then she soared even higher, flying her plane above the savannah. Ten Points by Strickland is a sort of post-modern contrast to Markham’s West with the Night. Instead of riding a horse through the vast uncharted savannas of Africa, Strickland expends enormous amounts of energy going around and around a paved track riding a tiny machine. Strangely enough, they are both seeking the same goal; freedom. While Markham strives for ever greater freedom in the outside world, Strickland pedals faster and faster around that race course looking for freedom inside his own psyche.
Strickland’s quest seems like an unlikely place to find anything other than heartache. He is the underdog, hopelessly outclassed by the international champions with whom he is riding, forcing him to strive with superhuman determination. His desperate desire to overcome insurmountable odds makes the book is so powerful. But what does he stand to gain by winning these puny ten points, while the racers against whom he is competing are racking up hundreds? It turns out, this is the way he has chosen to set himself free from his inner demons.
The demons are nothing more nor less than some of the most horrific memories of child abuse I ever thought I could tolerate. Reading some of his most abusive memories felt like I was squeezing myself through a disgusting tube, so I could get out the other end and rejoin him in his quest for becoming a complete person. The abuse he suffered as a child reached a crescendo, some of the details of which leave me so breathtakingly shamed I’d rather not remember them, let alone repeat them. For reasons Strickland never understood, the abuse stopped, but of course the memories didn’t. The book is about him trying to overcome the backward downward suction of those memories. How could he ever overcome the demons in his own psyche? Isn’t he stuck with them for life? That’s what keeps me turning pages.
I hate stories in which the bad guys are so powerful that they always come out on top. I want to identify with a hero who stands a chance. In Ten Points, Bill Strickland gives it his all, and I’m rooting for him the whole way. And get this. The big firepower that helps him defeat his demons is his determination to win at bicycle racing and his determination to love his wife and daughter. So much warmth flows among these three people I feel I am sharing some of the most profoundly loving relationships in all of literature. And so, when Strickland promises his four year old daughter he will win Ten Points, his love for her binds him to his racing in an almost mystical commitment. By making this promise, the cycle of abuse passed down from his grandfather to his father to him stops right here.
I love this big ammo. It’s a stunning affirmation of ordinary life lived to its fullest. The most horrible stuff I ever don’t want to imagine, stuck seemingly forever in this guy’s memory, and his best antidote is his belief in the good things in normal life. When he throws himself into race, I can feel every turn of the wheel, every drop of spit and sweat that blows back from the riders who are beating him.
Through the drama and even poetry of his struggle, Strickland conveys the authentic power of racing to help him overcome his demons. And so, his experience teaches me something about how the human psyche can be healed. But why does it work? Is it a known psychological tool? I wonder where I have seen such a method used before and the best I come up with is Viktor Frankl’s model, that finding a purpose in life heals most psychological woes. Whatever the reason, striving for those ten points enabled Strickland to inject some sort of spiritual cleansing through his veins to help clear out the filth his father put there. Strickland’s love for his daughter, his urgent need to achieve purity through excellence, his commitment not to hate his father but to rise above him, and the partnership with his wife add up to a bittersweet creation, at one time showing some of the worst of the human condition, and in response to it, some of the best. His memoir is a great bicycle racing story, a great book about the love of a family, and a great book about the battle of good versus evil. In the end, he wins. Not the ten points. He wins his soul.