Tom Lee. Coach Fitz. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-925336-90-0
Carolyn van Langenberg
Coach Fitz by Tom Lee begins with theory resting on a premise derived from the observations of the persona, also named Tom. Those impressions received and analysed by Tom the character underpin the narrative. Initially, I found this approach to novel writing to be a challenge, being more familiar with directly plunging the reader into mood and tempo. Coach Fitz is cool. The narrative glides.
Tom, a young man struggling to balance his enthusiasm for physical fitness with his self-consciousness, employs the services of an older woman as his running coach. A former psychoanalyst, Coach Fitz’s methods combine fitness training with an eccentric curiosity about the spirit of the place that she chooses as their running track. The pair run across Sydney’s parklands, streets and beaches. They swap opinions and a conversation emerges about the athletic body peppered with observations about architectural style and becoming an adult. Neither are socially adept.
The novel leads the reader through outdoor gyms, picnic spots and water towers; to internet cafés, hotel restaurants and bottle shops; with goat’s cheese, olive oil and sourdough bread. The body loves itself, its squats, stretches, run-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, warm-ups and ——.
Tom finds himself at once fascinated and troubled by his mentor’s peculiar ideas. His attempt to develop his relationship with Coach Fitz flounders awkwardly, the scene well-crafted in a recognisable house in Annandale, Lilyfield or Rozelle. But this is not a novel about relationships. It’s about self-protection, the lone body with buffed skin enclosing finely tuned sinews and lovely bones. When Tom takes on a running partner of his own to replace the company he missed when Coach Fitz no longer ran with him, his emotional shortcomings don’t enhance his attempt to establish friendship or a credible student-teacher relationship.
Nick Mattiske of Insights magazine (UCA.org.au, sept 2018) writes:
Writing about the origins of the novel, Lee says that he is not being wholly critical of Sydney’s craze for fitness. In fact, the novel is an ‘expression of reverence’ for fitness. ‘Reverence’ is a deliberately religious word. There can be a level of religious devotion in physical exercise, with its community of believers, rituals, feelings of transcendence and attempts to live consistently well. It can be joyous and spiritually rewarding, but like the cultivation of mind and spirit there is a danger that it can turn inward, encourage self-obsession, become rigid and demanding and the arbiter of self-worth, and curb rather than enhance our interactions with others.
As a novel about the limitations of narcissism, Coach Fitz is successful. For to be so determined to build the body, to obsess about food, to indulge such pleasure in fetta and basil and drizzles of the finest olive oil over slices of perfectly ripened tomato on high quality sourdough, to love the car that is lived in, to choose the spare clothes of the athlete, the mirror is the judge that is not ever quite a friend. Inevitably the loneliness of self-engrossment endorses narcissism. The sanctuary of the bush shuffles shadows and sunlight, the beach sparkles, the sky above yawns, and the body is a beautiful stillness within the physical orb.
Is Tom zenlike, no greater than the flora, the copses and arbours, the sand and the sea under the vault of cobalt blue sky? Is Tom just another living creature, no more important than a microbe or an ant in the biodiverse scheme of nature? Or is he atomised, unable to connect with the life in the living environment, too insensate to form relationships with other animate beings? Is he too fastidious about the bruschetta?
Coach Fitz is Tom Lee’s first novel. It is well crafted and well written. Directed by a sensitive film-maker with an eye for visual fiction that is linear – not punctuated by regular dramatic pitches but flat, occasionally lingering more or less wordlessly in the various Sydney settings – the narrative would likely reach a wider audience than the novel.
Carolyn van Langenberg has had poetry and prose published internationally and locally. Carolyn is the author of the novels the novels sibyl’s stories (Pascoe Publishing, 1986) and the fish lips trilogy (Indra Publishing) — fish lips (2001), the teetotaller’s wake (2003), blue moon (2004). In 2000, the short story titled fish lips was short-listed for the David T K Wong Fellowship, East Anglia University, UK.