I suspect this will be a short review (well, short for our usual average of 900-1000 words around these parts). But if you strongly disagree with me, I suppose the comments will make up for my brevity up here, right!? Paul Volponi’s The Final Four is an auto-contenda because it’s received four starred reviews. It’s a pleasure to read; I don’t dispute any of the stars or the reviews. But in the end, I don’t believe this will go the distance in Printzland.
We have: four guys, two teams, and the final moments of March Madness. For the Spartans: Malcolm wants out — out of his neighborhood, away from the painful memories of his sister — and into the NBA. His teammate, MJ, wants to escape the shadow of his name (Michael Jordan) and to find a way to feel more comfortable playing basketball. And on the other side, we have the Trojans: Roko left Croatia after his journalist uncle died in a bombing; he hopes to become a journalist himself and basketball is how he plans to do so. Crispin’s surprise proposal to cheerleader girlfriend Hope puts their relationship under a national spotlight; the Trojans haven’t lost a game since they got engaged, but can their relationship withstand the pressure? Volponi weaves a complicated narrative, using play-by-play narration, flashbacks, one-on-one interviews with players, newspaper articles, and switching perspectives between the four main characters. The shuffling chapters, TV reports, newspaper articles and sports briefs add a delightful fluidity to the story.
The quadruple overtime game kept me reading, and helped to create fantastic suspense throughout the story. The on-court sequences are well done; Volponi’s sports writing is efficient and mostly convincing (no actual NCAA game would offer so many interviews; that’s potential revenue from commercials, after all. But as a storytelling device, it works, so I consider this a minor flaw).
There’s also a delicate balance between the flashbacks and the current timeline. I never thought the story felt slow or bogged down by the players’ back stories; the two timelines work together really well. It helps that the flashbacks are truly flashes, and the current timeline is told in quick bursts. Keeping everything so sharp made it more engaging — and actually made the story flow more smoothly and fleetly. The narrative structure Volponi sets up is graceful and effective. This book flows like a basketball game, and is beautifully pieced together.
The four players are sympathetic characters; the back stories hit all the right notes. It’s hard to know which team to root for — everyone’s story is engaging and even where characters are flawed, they are understandable and relatable. However, some clumsiness could have been avoided if the story had focused on Malcolm and Roko. The Malcolm and MJ relationship was a bit preachy and as a result their conversations felt somewhat inauthentic. And Crispin’s relationship with Hope was a little too blurry and felt more like a distraction than an essential element.
These flaws don’t kill the book — like I said, I support the four stars and believe this is a solid, effective read. What it’s not: rereadable. Well, of course you could reread it. But I can’t imagine what you’d get out of a reread — like Malcolm, this story is One and Done. I often find myself thinking about Volponi’s characters after I leave the pages of his books (there have been times when I’ve been convinced I saw Marcus and Eddie on the subway). I will probably find myself wondering what Malcolm is up to, or trying to imagine Roko as a journalist. But I can’t imagine rereading this book because I’ve absorbed this story. I’ve appreciated it. And I don’t think there’s anything else for me to find. In the normal course of things, that’s not a problem…but it’s a major flaw in Printzland.