A Barnacle Book/Rare Bird Books, 230 pages, paperback, $14.95
Sometimes a story is so dark it shines, and that’s exactly what Julian Tepper achieves with Balls (no pun intended). Imagine you could take all the humor that was missing from that infamous Tom Green testicular cancer special (if you’re too young to remember that or have never seen it, please don’t look it up) and inject it into a story that resembles a present-day and very energetic version of a classic Woody Allen film. The result would be something like Balls, but to get even closer to Tepper’s novel, you’d also have to sprinkle plenty of music, rationalization, and neurosis on top of it.
Balls is the story of Henry Schiller, a 30-year-old songwriter and lounge player who once sold a hit song and now pays the rent playing the piano while people drink. He’s in love with Paula, a younger woman about to graduate from Julliard who’s more musically gifted than him. While he struggles to create, she is about take off to pursue great opportunities in Europe. Henry is very insecure about his talent, and fears that Paula is in love with Dr. Jeffrey Moss, her old violin teacher, ex-lover, and mentor.
To make matters more complicated, Henry is diagnosed with testicular cancer after putting up with a lot of pain and finally deciding to visit a doctor. Instead of telling Paula, he hides his condition. He needs surgery immediately, but between rationalization, desperation, and new opportunities, it seems like Henry is ready to forget about the cancer and never have the orchiectomy he needs to keep the disease from spreading. The pain is bad, but it brought with it the song about New York that Henry has been dreaming about writing forever. Sadly, “Castrated New York” is too personal, too full of anger and pain to be a hit. And that pain is growing daily, reminding Henry that every second counts and his life depends on his actions or lack thereof.
Balls is a great read because it really captures New York City. The writing takes the reader places and the rhythm, which is as hard to ignore as trying to say “I am your father” in a regular voice, brings everything to life with an bubbly, jazz-like energy that can make you smile even when reading about truly uncomfortable situations involving doctors and Henry’s testicles. When an author can place readers where he or she wants, the magic of literary travel is in full effect:
“Out of the taxi and walking towards Lexington on 52nd and Park, through a fog of thin gray smoke billowing from a kebab stand with its sizzling lamb and chicken skewers, Henry was in daze. In the bones of his fingers was some unknown pain. Could it be related to his cancer?”
Besides being an homage to New York, the narrative’s appeal is also rooted in the universality of its themes. Young love and the inevitable heartbreak that comes from it, the nature of creativity, and fear of death are all present here, and they become infinitely more entertaining than in real life when filtered through a neurotic, perennially self-conscious main character.
Like a quick trip to the Big Apple, Balls is fast-paced, a little dirty, wonderfully entertaining, and leaves you wanting more.
Gabino Iglesias is writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.