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Mickey's authentic voice draws readers right into the story. As did Sid Hite in An Even Break (1995), Bauer (Thwonk, 1995, etc.) sets up a good, clear conflict and confidently weaves in subplots. Characters both major and minor come to life, a recurring math theme ties things together, and Cruckston, New Jersey, emerges as a town with a lot more heart than its seedy exterior suggests.
Buck Pender rams the five ball into the side pocket and leans across the pool table like a gorilla.
"Just keeps getting worse, don't it?" he says like I'm supposed to say, "Yeah, Buck, I quit. I just can't take it. You're the greatest."
Buck tips the six ball into the side pocket and gives me his fat smile. The bearded guy on table eight is watching me. I hold my stick tough like I don't care that I'm getting crushed by an ape-boy in my own family's pool hall.
Buck misses an easy bank shot on the seven and steps back like I'm diseased. Here's the thing about nine ball: Whoever gets the nine in on a legal shot wins-it doesn't matter if every other ball you hit goes in perfect. The nine ball is king.
I study the table for the best shot as Arlen Pepper eats a Raisinet. Arlen is my best friend. Sometimes he's my coach too. Some people say he doesn't look old enough to be in fifth grade-he's short and skinny with a bunch of blond hair that never stays put.
He wipes off his glasses and studies the table. We've worked out signals between us like pitchers and catchers use in the heat of a big game. Arlen taps his new Red Sox cap and coughs twice, which means I should go for the bank shot-that's when you bounce a ball off the rail and into a pocket. Bank shots are my specialty because I'm good at math. Pool is pure geometry, plus a little physics.
I bank the seven ball at a ninety-degree angle and watch it zip into the corner. Arlen shakes his box of Raisinets, which means good shot.
"Lucky," Buck says, hissing.
I nail the eight in the side. Tell me about lucky.
I do a little dance around the table to show I'm hot. I chalk my stick light-losers chalk hard. Only the nine ball's left. If I make it, I get some pride back. Buck's beating me five games to zip. There's nobody I want to beat worse than him.
My hands are sweating. That's death to a pool player-sweaty hands make your stick slip. I wipe them on my jeans. I stretch to reach the white cue ball.
I'm thinking about Buck's fat face.
Thinking about all the times he's pushed me around.
Arlen's tapping and coughing hard; he wants me to bank the nine. It's a maniac shot off two rails. I look up at him. I can't make that shot!
I aim my stick for a big slice on the nine instead. The sweat keeps coming. Arlen's tugging at his earlobe, which means I'm making a mistake. I hit the white cue ball just as my stick slips. The nine ball misses the pocket.
"Ahhh!" I ram my stick on the floor.
Buck goes, "Tsk, tsk." He rams the nine in the side. I close my eyes and hear it roll inside the table.
Buck kisses his stick and walks off laughing. He stops at the red shirt with the white lettering that's hanging in the big window that faces Flax Street, the main drag in town. I don't like him near that shirt. It reads:
VERNON'S POOL HALL YOUTH TOURNAMENT CHAMPION CRUCKSTON, NEW JERSEY
The tournament's for ten- to thirteen-year-olds and I'm finally old enough to compete. Pool is big stuff in this town. Vernon's makes sure of it. We've got special deals for kids and families, free lessons on Saturdays. When the paper mill on Grossmont Street closed down, Poppy, my grandmother, let all those out-of-work folks and their families play pool for free on Wednesday afternoons for a whole year. We got a plaque from the mayor saying how for forty years Vernon's has been an anchor for the town. Poppy keeps it on the shelf above the cash register next to her bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
Buck's not looking at the plaque. He turns to me with his thirteen-year-old's sneer: "The shirt's mine, Vernon!" and walks out the door like God's gift to the galaxy.
"You're not winning it!" Arlen screams after him. "Mickey's going to win it because you're a stupid moron!"
The bearded guy on table eight is watching me again like he's trying to figure something out. I don't like being watched when I've lost. I look at the gray tile floor. I look at the old paneled walls. I feel the roll of the green cloth on table seven. We've got twenty-four Brunswick pool tables at Vernon's and I've played on every one.
Now it might sound impossible, me, a ten-year-old, gunning to beat a teenager, but I can beat lots of kids my age and older in this hall. I've got pool in my blood.
I'm tall for my age-five-four to be exact. This puts me dead even with Poppy except when she stands on her toes to holler. I've got long arms and big hands like my dad, light brown hair like my mom.
My grandparents built this hall forty years ago and stuck their house on top of it because Grandpa didn't want anything between him and the tables. It's a big house, too, the only one in the business district-every inch of it brick-laid, like the hall below, with eight long rooms and a secret passageway going up to the roof. The roof's so cool; being on top of things makes you feel important. It's got a black iron fence around it so no one can fall off.
I had my tenth birthday party up there last September. Guys came up the passageway, which you get to through my closet; it was dark like always because the light doesn't work. We took flashlights and made it up the creaky stairs. I had everybody feel raw egg in a bowl and told them it was a brain. We could see the old abandoned paper mill and the blinking LOANS WHILE U WAIT sign and the big trucks rolling six blocks away on the New Jersey Turnpike. Then me, Arlen, Petie Pencastle, T. R. Dobbs, and Reed Jaworski slept in a tent even though it was raining. It was the best party I ever had.
My dad learned to shoot in this very hall. I did too. Dad was beating adults when he was twelve years old. Like my grandmother Poppy says-age doesn't matter in pool. What matters is playing smart. My dad was a world-class player. I've seen him play on videos my mom took when he was on the professional nine-ball circuit. He was big-six feet two inches-and when he leaned over a pool table, he'd smile and shoot his stick fast like a rifle. On a video Mom took in Atlantic City he ran 289 balls without missing. He had jet-black hair and brown eyes. His favorite color was blue. I've got everything about him memorized good.
He would have become nine-ball champion of the world if he hadn't gotten all that cancer.
He died when I was eight months old.
That leaves me to be nine-ball champion of the world someday.
But first I've got to beat Buck.
Arlen's staring at me. He's mad I didn't try to bank the nine ball.
"You forgot your secret weapon?" Arlen yells. "You forgot math?"
"I didn't forget."
I didn't know anything about the connection between math and pool until Arlen pointed it out to me two years ago when we were in third grade. I was standing on an A&W crate practicing bank shots when Arlen leaped up all excited and told me I was doing geometry. I'd heard of geometry. I just didn't know what it was.
"It's about measurements," Arlen said, "and how points, lines, and angles go together. I'm studying it with Mr. Blodgett!"
Now, I'd grown up in a pool hall and no one had ever mentioned geometry to me. But Arlen had been in gifted math programs since he was in first grade, so I figured I was getting the inside track. Arlen pointed at the eight ball lying close to the rail of the table. "How are you going to shoot that, Mickey?"
"I'm going to hit it hard and hope it bounces into the corner."
"But why are you going to do that?"
I look around. "Because this is a pool hall and I'm not playing checkers."
"But why does it work?"
I was about to say it works because that's how you play pool.
"It works," said Arlen, "because bank shots use geometric angles. When you hit the eight ball at a certain angle to the rail, it will bounce off the rail at the same angle."
Arlen called it the angle of incidence always equaling the angle of reflection. He took out a notepad and drew this picture. I saved it for studying.
"So when you make a bank shot, you're using geometry to do it!" Arlen sat back like he'd just invented chocolate.
We drew a lot more diagrams and I kept trying shots and measuring the angles. After a few weeks, my bank shots were better. After a few months, my whole game was cleaner.
Arlen won't let me forget it. Like now.
"Math," he's shouting, waving his protractor, which he takes everywhere, "will never fail you! You think Buck's got a secret weapon?"
"Skill," I say.
"That's not a winning attitude!"
The bearded man on table eight makes an unbelievable triple bank and runs the rest of the balls like an absolute ace. I rub the Band-Aids covering the blisters I've got on both hands from practicing so hard. The guy puts down his stick and says, "Listen, son, you could have won that game."
Is he kidding? If I could have won, I would have.
The man racks the balls on table eight, pulls back his right arm, and pow like a rifle, three balls go in on the break. He picks the rest of the balls off like nothing, piles them in the rack, slaps a cowboy hat on his head, and tucks his thumb in his fat leather belt, which has a silver buckle shaped like a wild horse.
"I'd watch that focus of yours, son," the man says. "You're missing more shots than you need to."
What's he talking about?
The man looks over at Poppy, who's dusting her Hall of Fame photographs of the pool greats of the world, which line the wall by the odd-numbered tables. She's giving Allen Hopkins, Willie Mosconi, and Machine Gun Lou Butera an extra go with the cloth. Poppy takes everything about pool serious. When Hanrahan's House of Pool opened across town with its cheap tables, bad sticks, and discount coupons, Poppy stuck a poster in our window:
REAL POOL ALWAYS HAD IT ALWAYS WILL.
Hanrahan's closed in two years. Poppy says there's no substituting for quality.
Poppy's wearing her gray Vernon's sweatshirt. She wears one every day, except in the summer and for church on Sunday. She sells them behind the counter-red, blue, and gray; VERNON'S is spelled out big on the front and back so people can see where you've been whether you're coming or going.
Poppy's run Vernon's ever since Grandpa died (which was long before I was born), even though everyone told her it was no job for a woman. She's kept it like Grandpa would have, too, except for the time three years ago when she put in the snack bar and had to take it out because guys were getting Cheez Whiz on the tables. We've got vending machines in the back now by the storage closet.
Poppy raises her dustcloth and smacks a fly dead that landed on her sign:
THIS IS VERNON'S-IF YOU SPIT, YOU'RE OUT IF YOU SWEAR, YOU'RE OUT. IF YOU'RE TROUBLE, DON'T COME IN -EDWINA P. VERNON, PROPERTIES
The man with the beard laughs a little when she does it. "Well ...," he says, drawing the word out slow, "I'd best be going."
He walks to the counter to turn in his rack. He stands there a minute, looking at the pool trophies my dad won lining the shelves of the glass case behind the counter.
NEW JERSEY STATE 9 BALL CHAMPION U.S. TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS PEPSI OPEN CHAMPION RAK M UP CLASSIC CHAMPION ROCKY MOUNTAIN OPEN CHAMPION
Poppy and my mom have fights sometimes about whether the trophies should stay up or get put away. Poppy says if Mom wants them down, she'll do it, and Mom says she can't make the decision herself. I can't imagine that case without Dad being part of it.
The man puts his money down and tips his hat to Poppy, who watches him strange and keeps on watching as he walks out of the hall through the big oak door like a sheriff going to clean up a town.
Arlen and I turn like one kid and head out the door too, just as the man crosses Flax Street. He walks straight and fast, past Mrs. Cassetti's bakery and the big wedding cake she keeps in the window; past the fix-it shop, where Mr. Kopchnik sits outside in his chair, taking apart a blender, listening to opera; past Crystal's Launderette, where he opens the door for Mrs. Merman and her granddaughter Samantha, who's carrying the laundry basket. Then he climbs into the cab of a huge green truck.
The April wind picks up.
The man revs the engine.
It's the shiniest truck I've ever seen: a Peterbilt-the ultimate. He pulls her out easy-the truck's shining like an emerald-and moves down Flax Street past the old gray buildings and boarded-up stores, leaving thunder in his path.
Arlen and I stand there feeling the rumble.
"Who was that guy?" we whisper.
Excerpted from STICKS by JOAN BAUER Copyright © 1996 by Joan Bauer . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 1, 2004
This is one of my favorite books. I love all of the characters unique and very distinguished personality. This books is fun to read and easy to get in to. (At times, i even caught myself talking to the characters telling them not to do something).
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 22, 2001
Posted February 24, 2000
A young boy named mickey wanted to win the nine-ball champion at his home pool hall. He get's help from a math whiz friend and a mentor pool playing cowboy. Bauer makes a story about a ten-year old who is working hard on his hobbie. And at the end, all the hard work pays off and he wins nine-ball champion against a older bully.
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Posted November 11, 2008
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Posted July 14, 2010
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