Table tennis, anyone?

A stirring history and a rousing defense of the little white ball

In America, ping-pong, or table tennis, is a curious cultural anomaly. Like soccer and ABBA in the late 1970s, ping-pong is immensely popular all over the world except in the United States. More than a quarter of a billion people worldwide play ping-pong (China alone has more than 10 million registered players), and it's the most watched Olympic sport in all of Asia.

But in the US, ping-pong is a marginal sport. While the top players in France train at the National School of Sports and Physical Education, many of the best players in America train in pool halls. Things were not always so bleak for the American ping-pong enthusiast. "In Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins," author and avid pongiste Jerome Charyn recalls the glory days of the 1930s and 40s, when ping-pong was a highly visible sport in this country and flourished in its own peculiar world, centered in New York City.

"New York had once been the land of luftmenschen," Charyn writes in one of many vividly descriptive passages, "where people could live on air, feed themselves for nickels at any Automat, and thrive in a nighttime world of sports and games, remove themselves from Manhattan's money song, the constant, grinding search for wealth.... Ping-pong was a kind of fierce no to the dominant culture: the sheer force of play was much more vital and thrilling than any career."

While the US has never had a national institute to train athletes, New York had Lawrence's Broadway Courts, which, in the words of ping-pong champion Dick Miles, "served for 20 golden years as an incubator for US champions and finishing school for hustlers."

It was at Lawrence's that Miles and Marty "The Needle" Reisman, the other great American champion, engaged in legendary Friday night matches, which started around midnight and lasted for two or three hours. Ruth Aarons, a teenager from New York, won the 1936 World Championship in Prague by playing against the best male players at Lawrence's.

Everything changed with the introduction, in 1952, of paddles covered with a thick layer of rubber foam, which returned shots at speeds far greater than conventional paddles covered with a pimpled rubber surface. According to a journalist of the day, sponge rubber changed ping-pong "from a graceful game of careful calculation into a high-velocity battleground." The best American players didn't adapt to sponge quickly enough.

Charyn, a native of the Bronx who now lives in Paris, is not a ping-pong champion; in fact, he is a rather middling player, ranked 11,013 among all registered players in France. But in the grab bag of essays that compose "Sizzling Chops," he writes about the game with great passion, recounting the history of ping-pong, its rise and fall in the US, his own involvement in the game, and the "brotherhood" of ping-pong players.

Charyn has written close to 30 novels, and his gift for storytelling is evident on every page. He is also an exceptionally skilled memoirist, and the autobiographical sections are among the best. As with most sports writing, it isn't the game so much as the people who play it and the milieu they inhabit that fascinate, and Charyn's portraits of past ping-pong champions and the colorful habitu├ęs of his club in Paris are memorable.

David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Kan.

Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins: Ping-Pong and the Art of Staying Alive

By Jerome Charyn

Four Walls Eight Windows 160 pp., $24

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