By Ryan McNeill
Rookie scribe Matt de la Pena has burst onto the writing scene with the literary equivalent of a slam dunk with “Ball Don’t Lie.” In his freshman novel he has combined his love for the game, his experiences as a former collegiate player and his Masters of Fine Arts degree to produce an epic novel that will enthral any basketball fan.
Matt’s unique writing style is reminiscent of someone reciting live poetry blended with the feel of a hip hop concert because his writing style provides the reader with such vivid imagery of the scenes he is describing. One of my favourite examples of his gritty writing style is when Matt describes an encounter that Sticky has with a homeless person by writing, “a guy with flies comes staggering up to Sticky’s stall and knocks on the wall twice. Politely. Sticky whips around wide-eyed. This cat’s a rotting burrito. Greasy hair and beard sticking out of a tightly wrapped Mexican blanket. Half-dead eyes. Callused feet under nappy frill.”
Another section that emphasizes Matt’s unique style is when he wrote that, “in the winter there are so many homeless bodies spread out across court two you can hardly see the floor. There are leaks when it rains. Rusted pots are set out to collect heavy drops. Sometimes a guy will track in mud and delay the games. Jimmy sets up a twenty-five dollar heater and everybody puts their hands up to it before they play. In the summer you can hear the foundation cracking. The walls, the ceiling. Like the old gym is stretching out it’s stiff arms and legs. There are faded bloodstains and tooth marks in the wood.”
How can you not get a plethora of vivid images dancing around your mind while you read these excerpts?
Besides Matt’s unique writing style, the other reason that this story is so compelling is the main character Sticky. Sticky grew up bouncing around between foster and group homes and has now finally found somewhere he belongs – the basketball court. As his story unfolds you read about him butting heads with teammates and coaches, he runs afoul with the law and he struggles in his attempts to do the right thing in his relationship with his girlfriend Anh-thu. Despite all of his faults and quirks you can’t help but root for him to succeed despite being a criminal and an egocentric teen.
In this story a lot of people try to step in and mentor Sticky on life and basketball. Near the end of the story one of the men that Sticky plays ball with, Dante, sits him down for a heart-to-heart because “he just wants him to see the world for what it is. For how it works. Because even though Sticky’s white and he’s black, there are obvious similarities: the passion for playing bal, the grace with the rock, the way every move on the court comes from some inherent instinct. He looks at Sticky and he knows basketball is all he has. A game. A sport. He knows there’s nobody looking out for him. Nobody talking to him about life or waiting for him to come home at night. Sticky’s completely alone. Just like he was when he was a kid. Sometime’s just looking at Sticky brings back painful things about his own past. Things he thought he’d long since put away.”
The tough part of reading about Sticky is that he’s fully away that he’s an outsider. From his autistic traits, the loss of his mother at a young age and the lack of attachment that was created from bouncing around from foster home to foster home Sticky is a vagabond of sorts who grew up with a constant sense of displacement. Later in the book Sticky takes on yet another enduring attribute when he questions his value. While staring into a mirror after a shower, “Sticky stares at his face as a whole. His eyes, ears, lips, cheeks, chin. His color. He looks at the way everything comes together. Anh-thu says he has a beautiful face. She says a lot of the girls tink that about him. But why? he wonders. He imagines Dante looking at this face when he was talking to the stones. Telling him how nobody wants him. This face. Telling him how everybody keeps giving him back. Dropping him back off cause he’s nothing. This face. These dark eyes. These cheekbones. These lips. At some point in their life, he thinks, maybe everybody looks at their face like this. Wishes they could change one or two things. But has anybody ever experienced this situation? Feeling that none of it makes any sense? Cause he’s looking closely at his face, closer than he ever has before, and he doesn’t recognize himself. He doesn’t know this face. It’s a complete stranger. And the whole things freaks him out to the point where he has to look away.” I think it’s safe to assume that during our teenage years we all have gazed into a mirror and had similar thoughts. While we weren’t all basketball prodigies like Sticky, we can all relate to struggling to find out identity and self worth during our teenage years.
This is of the rare books where I found myself unable to stop reading until I had read the last page. Matt did a great job of developing Sticky and the other characters so that the readers feels a vested interest in the characters and easily becomes engrossed on the events unfolding in this story. Also, his unique writing style was nothing short of captivating.
Between Matt’s captivating writing style and a brilliant character development this book is a must read for any basketball fan.
Make sure you check out Three Stones Back for information on the upcoming movie based on this book. Also, keep an eye out for an upcoming podcast with Matt that will be posted on HoopsAddict.com this month.