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A Backhanded Gift: A Novel

A Backhanded Gift: A Novel

by Marshall Jon Fisher

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It’s the late 1980s, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Robert Cherney, a 30-year-old aspiring writer, has left New York City for a job teaching tennis in Munich. Aside from private lessons, he coaches the Maccabi Club men's league team, a motley group of neurotics whose eccentricities seem exacerbated by their situation as Jews living in Germany.


It’s the late 1980s, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Robert Cherney, a 30-year-old aspiring writer, has left New York City for a job teaching tennis in Munich. Aside from private lessons, he coaches the Maccabi Club men's league team, a motley group of neurotics whose eccentricities seem exacerbated by their situation as Jews living in Germany. They have made fortunes in postwar Germany but are hounded daily by the ghosts of the past and wracked with guilt over living so blithely among their parents’ tormentors. One of the players on Robert's team is his best friend in Munich, Max Altmann, a successful and wealthy young businessman who is also Robert’s employer, landlord, provocateur, and guide to Munich's nightlife. In addition to trying to figure out his life and not go crazy teaching tennis, Robert is trying to forget Lexa, the focus of years of erotic obsession back in New York. Helping him are Ingrid, a 40-ish Maccabi member and tennis pupil, and Veronique, a 25-year-old Jewish graduate student whom Max tries to set up with Robert. Love, tennis, sex, frustrated artistic ambition, and the dilemma of being a German Jew are all ingredients of this literary delight that is at turns serious and comedic.

Editorial Reviews

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“Fisher has gotten hold of some mighty themes: war and peace, love and death, sports and savagery. . . . As the match enters its final set, all the narrative pieces lock together, and A Terrible Splendor becomes as engrossing as the contest it portrays.”  —Washington Post on A Terrible Splendor

“Rich and rewarding.”  —Wall Street Journal on A Terrible Splendor

“Enthralling . . . a gripping tale. . . . Wedding the nuances of a sport to broader historical events is a challenge, but Fisher pulls the task off with supreme finesse, at once revealing the triumph and tragedy of a remarkable tennis match.”  —San Francisco Chronicle on A Terrible Splendor

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A Backhanded Gift

A Novel

By Marshall Jon Fisher

New Chapter Press

Copyright © 2012 Marshall Jon Fisher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937559-34-2


People will generally assume that what you are doing with your life is what you want to be doing. Ought to write that down. Never will. Robert plucked an excessively fuzzy yellow tennis ball from his left pocket, relinquished it to gravity for a half-second, and then imposed a force of his own, knocking the ball to the other side of the net, where it bounced sluggishly off the orange-red clay.

A woman in her mid-forties, bright orange frizzy hair bursting out of a sixty-mark Fila headband, ran too close to the ball but still managed to intercept its path and return it over the net. After a few apathetic bounces it came to rest in the clay just north of the service line.

How exotic, she'd said. Europe. Tennis. Your novel. All those nymphets in short white skirts clamoring for your sportliche advice. Right.

He stood on one side of the net and fed them ground strokes, five forehands and five backhands each. "Turn your body, Frau Sardovnik," he called. "That's it. Okay, Frau Tzerkovsky, let's see those knees bend." One, two, three, four, five. "Okay, Frau Tägermeier, your turn. Let's go." Sardovnik, Tzerkovsky, Tägermeier. The good ladies of the only Jewish tennis club in Munich. The Mattathias Tennis Club didn't have its own courts yet — that promised construction was the focus of a good two hours of smoky, tumultuous debate once a month at the Munich Jewish Association's meeting — so it rented court time at Sport Scheck, a first-class public facility out on the edge of the farmland near Unterföhring, just inside the Ring. And aside from their religion, their Polish blood (for the most part), and a matter of history, its members fit right in with the other patrons: wealthy, cultured, accustomed to leisure.

"Each gone," Frau Tägermeier was calling from the far baseline. A rich husband and she thought she owned the damn club and everyone in it. Now she was waving her top-of-the-line racket in his direction.

"I'm sorry?"

"I said we've each gone already. That was Ingrid's seventh backhand. Shouldn't we do something else now?"

"Yes." He glanced at his watch. Christ, only fifteen minutes gone. Forty-five to fill.

"I need work on my serve," Frau Tägermeier called out. He looked up. The three women, not many for a Tuesday, were waiting. No, not the serve; save that to kill the last twenty minutes.

"Why don't we work on the volley?" he said.

It was only a few months since he'd stood outside the old Munich-Riem airport, a modest single building only ten kilometers from the center of town, waiting for Max. He could have been in the city in twenty minutes via U-Bahn; instead he waited outside for forty-five, until finally a glistening black Porsche swerved up to the curb.

"You must be Robert," the driver began before he had fully disengaged his long frame from the automobile. "Max Altmann," he strode forward and extended his hand like a prize.

He was about Robert's age, surprisingly, though they couldn't have looked less alike. Robert with his unshaven face, jeans and sweatshirt, lugging a duffel bag like a freight train hobo; Max in his designer Italian suit, hair shined and harnessed perfectly in expensive gel, twirling the keys to his sports car around one finger like a gold-plated yoyo.

"You've been to Munich before?" he asked, once they were on the Tögingerstrasse, passing through rolling farmland heading in to the city.

"Only one night, I'm afraid, on my obligatory whirlwind backpacking tour of Europe, just after I graduated college."

"Which was ..."

"Eight years ago, next month."

"Really. Me as well. London School of Economics." That explained his voice, which sounded like an upper-class British English slightly infiltrated by a German accent, rather than the opposite. "Well, I think you'll like our city. Munich is a small town, really. Everyone seems to know everyone else. Yet you have many of the advantages of the larger metropolis: the symphony, the theaters, the museums ..."

They made their way into the city, as the farmland gave way to affluent suburban neighborhoods, then the older elegant buildings of Prinzregentenstrasse, and finally the bustling center of town. Robert knew the apartment Max had arranged for him was centrally located, but he still was a bit surprised when they drove right up to the Hauptbahnhof. Max took a left at the entrance to the station, drove half a block down the street and pulled into a No Parking zone in front of a Turkish bank.

"Welcome to Goethestrasse," he said as he cut the engine. "It's not the most elegant part of Munich, but it's the best I could do for free. My family owns the building, you see. Besides, you don't want to be in the boring suburbs. Here you'll be in perfect position to experience Munich."

He gestured Robert to follow and entered the building, a modest prospect at best. They squeezed into an elevator with a manually operated door painted a sloppy green. It was not a vehicle to inspire confidence, but they managed to ride its squeaks and jolts to the sixth floor. "As you've perhaps noticed, this is mainly a business building. But we do rent out a couple of apartments ..." his voice trailed off as they walked down the short hall — concrete floor and pockmarked white plaster walls. He pulled a ring saturated with keys out of his pocket and opened the last room. "After you," he waved him inside.

A single bed in the corner, no sheets. A threadbare brown corduroy sofa against the other wall, and a plain wooden table in between, with a plain wooden chair. Near the door, a small refrigerator and stove. Robert walked to the window and looked out over Goethestrasse. Leaning out, he could look down the street and see the entrance to the Hauptbahnhof.

"Convenient for travel," he said.

"As I said, it's not the most elegant ..."

"No, it's fine. Perfect, in fact."

"Perhaps you would have preferred something closer to the tennis courts."

"Not at all. I'll be spending enough time there as it is."

"Well, I hope we can provide you with enough work. I promised the board of the club that enough members would want lessons to justify bringing you over here. And I don't want you to become bored."

"Oh, I won't be bored. I have plenty to do aside from teaching tennis."

"And what would that be?"

Robert stumbled over his answer. He had gotten into the habit over the years of hiding his literary pursuits. "Well, there's a whole city to see, isn't there?" he said. "And my German to work on. And you? You're in real estate?"

"Ya, this and that really. Various business concerns. Well," he began to move toward the door, "you will need to sleep, I'm sure, after your flight. Why don't we rendezvous at the courts tomorrow afternoon? You can meet the fellows at our regular practice.

"Welcome to Munich," Robert heard him say in a normal speaking voice though he was already out of sight, halfway to the elevator.

Slowly, Goethestrasse 10 became home. Robert was the only full-time resident other than the Hausmeister, Karpinsky, who for political reasons had left his Jesuit priesthood training in Russia and come to Munich to study physics at the university, and who took great pleasure in reminding Robert whenever they met that he spoke seven languages — Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Serbo-Croatian — but not a word of English. Of course there was also Farakh, the old grey-bearded Turk who had his translation company across the hall (Turkish-German, no English) and apparently slept there too, often stomping through the hallway drunk in the middle of the night and slamming his door shut as though to convince himself he was still alive. But Farakh was not an official boarder; he was supposed to have a home to go home to.

Robert was just as glad that Karpinsky and Farakh spoke no English. Solitude was what he wanted. A place to work. Each morning he'd wake to his watch alarm at seven, take a bath and shave, make a quick run to the Bäkerei for pastry and coffee, and be sitting at his table by eight, paper and pen in front of him.

And then nothing. At least in New York he had managed to produce some stories, if not publish them. But Munich, the exotic locale that was supposed to unleash his creativity, had done the opposite. The most he did for months was jot down ideas for future stories and novels in his little brown notebook. He had concocted a tenuous ghost of a plot outline regarding three people meeting in New York City and forming some sort of love triangle. As the characters grew more and more intimate, the sentences would lengthen, grow more integrated, like points on a graph congealing into line segments and finally integrating perfectly into a smooth curve — the final paragraph would be one, thirty-page, rolling, roiling sentence of consummation. A Calculus of Several Lives, he would call it.

Ideas he had no shortage of; turning them into actual bundles of prose was another matter. He was no better than the hordes of kibitzers that surfaced anytime one made the irrevocable error of admitting one's literary pretensions. They all had a "great idea" for a bestselling book, usually no more detailed than, say, "It's about a realtor in a little town in New Jersey." "Super idea, Tom," you'd say to Tom, a realtor from New Jersey, and quickly plot your escape from the hors d'oeuvres table. Robert's story ideas were perhaps more ambitious and thought out, but the bottom line was the same as Tom's: all plan and no execution.

At noon he would put down his pen, collect his morning's output of doodles and discarded beginnings and toss them into the wastepaper basket, and carefully arrange the remaining blank pages into a neat pad under the pen.

The hot midday light of Goethestrasse made him wince as he stepped outside with his racket bag slung over one shoulder. One of the countless tour buses had pulled up in front of his building, and it hissed and steamed while its passengers disembarked and lingered in small camps on the sidewalk: families of gesticulating mustached men and fat robed wives and screaming children and bags and suitcases. Businessmen scurried between their shops and their cars, weaving between shoppers, and the corner fruit merchants dealt from their wooden kiosks. Across the street, the porn video theater, The Blue Box, was open for business, and every minute or so another businessman in suit and tie disappeared from the street through the hanging leather straps of its entrance.

He crossed the street and walked by the glass case of photographs advertising the films, glancing at them as if by chance. The brunette, unabashed smile and open blouse distracting passing salesmen and schoolchildren with overflowing breasts. The blonde on the bicycle, not on the seat but with her thighs wrapped around the horizontal bar. The topless twins in cutoff jeans grinning out at the traffic from atop a horse. The two black women making love in a field of daisies, legs crisscrossed like French braids.

On Bayerstrasse, across from the Hauptbahnhof, he caught the Strassenbahn. After transferring to another trolley and then a bus, he arrived forty-five minutes later at Sport Scheck. Thirty-five perfectly manicured red clay courts, a riding stable, clubhouse, and restaurant. He walked five minutes from the bus stop, through the parking lot full of Mercedes and BMWs, and dropped his bag at a table in the outdoor café.

Everyday the same lunch. He barely had time to say "Tortellini" to the dark-haired Italian waitress before she finished it for him, "Gorgonzola," and disappeared. He'd sit back and watch the tennis players, mostly older women at this hour, congregate in the café. Sport Scheck was a public facility but felt more elegant and exclusive than most private tennis clubs back home. Tennis had yet to reach the lower middle class in Germany.

He hit tennis balls to the bourgeoisie. Surely there were worse ways to make a living. Coal mining, dentistry. Don't be an ass. "You're too close to the ball," he cried. Nabokov himself hit tennis balls to ladies like these, just sixty years and three hundred miles away in Berlin. No, what was it? "Like an automaton," something like that, "on hot, dusty courts, shoveling ball after ball over the net to businessmen's tanned, bob-haired daughters." Sirin was his pen name: a fabulous bird of paradise. Held five balls in his left hand all day, just like me. Big difference: for him there was real glory waiting. The poems and early novels his tennis-teaching supported were real. Every day he had more lines, more pages, to prove the worthwhileness of the on-court monotony. Even before he had written them, they existed in his head while he hit white ball after white ball; Sirin probably composed whole poems while Nabokov swung his racket. Whereas my head is filled only with frustration, boredom. "Too close: you're overrunning the ball." Wonder what she's doing now. No, no, forget about that. New York is a past world for you. What's the point of coming here if your head is still there? "Still too close to the ball." When the means to the end becomes the end in itself, and the original goal disappears into mist, what is the end of the means? When will the means end? When will this hour end? "Still too close." He glanced at his watch as he reached into the hopper for more balls. A dim simulacrum of joy rose in his chest. "We only have fifteen more minutes. Why don't we hit some serves?"

When the hour finally ended, a minute and a half early (no matter how many drills or exercises he added, or extra repetitions he insisted on, or how slowly he enunciated his instructions and walked back to his side of the net, he could never seem to quite fill the entire sixty minutes), he retreated back to the café for an Apfelschorle — apple juice and soda water in equal proportions. The men wouldn't be here for another two hours, but that wasn't long enough to go back into town.

"Are you waiting for a date?" Frau Sardovnik approached his table.

"No. Please," he gestured and she took a seat. Of all the women he taught, Frau Sardovnik was the least annoying. No, he even liked her. Located somewhere in middle age — he assumed she only looked younger than the others — she seemed content with herself. Content with her looks, not reliant on plastic surgery or expensive accessories. Content with the modest wealth her job (she had some sort of career, he wasn't sure what) afforded her. And content with her slice backhand, which wouldn't win her any club championships but served her well in a pinch — she could always get the ball back in play on ad-out. Most endearing of all, she had a sense of awareness, rare in her milieu, of the shallowness of her society, of its greed and selfishness and collective amnesia.

"So who's your next victim?" she asked.

"The men's team," his voice fell, despite his best efforts.

"Do I detect something less than admiration and respect for our club's macho sportsmen?"

"Not at all, not at all. But I do think they need someone who is more of a ... disciplinarian."

"Yes, you're right on the nose. Those boys need someone with a leather whip. Except Max, of course. Max prospers in a more lenient atmosphere."

"Yeah, except he hardly ever shows up for practice. Always off in Italy or France or China or wherever. And when he is in town, I'm not sure his day begins before nine p.m."

She sighed. "No, I don't suppose you're the one to run those boys with an iron hand. Still, you're a very good teacher, if one listens carefully enough to hear your whispering. But tell me, Robert, you don't seem the sort who would be here as our tennis trainer. You must have something better to do. What are your plans?"

"I have no plans beyond the summer."

"Surely you're going to do more with your life than teach tennis?"

"There was a time when I was supposed to go to medical school. Then I was going to be a writer. But then I realized I would have to support myself somehow, so I got jobs editing at magazines. But they were not very satisfying: long hours, low pay, trivial work. So I started giving tennis lessons at various clubs and parks. At one club I saw the ad for this job, and Munich sounded like the perfect change of pace."

"Ach! There's a joke."

"You don't like your city."

"No, I like it fine. Then why are we all trying to leave it? But that's a long story. How old are you, Rob?"

"Robert. I'm twenty-nine."

"Then you must stop calling me Frau Sardovnik. My name is Ingrid. I'm only forty-two. Surprised?"

"Of course not."

"I'm much younger than the others in the ladies' clinic, you know. Though I suppose we all look the same to you."

"Not at all." He felt himself blushing. "You're obviously younger than they."

"Well," she sighed again, "Max got me into this tennis thing. He thought I should get more involved in the Jewish community, and I certainly wasn't going to start showing up at Schul."

"You're not religious?"

"No. No, I'm not. And I don't have much patience for the guilt and the suffering they all love to wallow in. Life is too short. Has Max dragged you to temple yet?"


Excerpted from A Backhanded Gift by Marshall Jon Fisher. Copyright © 2012 Marshall Jon Fisher. Excerpted by permission of New Chapter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Marshall Jon Fisher is a writer whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Discover Magazine, DoubleTake magazine, and Harper’s. He is the author of The Ozone Layer and A Terrible Splendor and the coauthor of Strangers in the Night: A Brief History of Life on Other Worlds and Tube: The Invention of Television. He lives in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

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