Reading Bill Strickland's Ten Points
Bill Strickland is the editor of Bicycling Magazine. He lives in Pennsylvania. He races for Kapelmuur Independent. And he writes, a lot. Articles for various cycling and sometimes non-cycling magazines, a few books, blog posts. The first time I read something by him was maybe in Rouleur a year ago, and then I began following him online. I remember it initially surprised me that a person who wrote like Bill Strickland was the editor of Bicycling. Those guys are all about nutrition and training and race coverage and roadbike reviews. Strickland's writing is evocative and sensual and self-consciously sentimental. And that's just on his instagram account.
Ten Points is an unconventional memoir. It's inextricably tied to bicycle racing, but is not really about it. Bicycling is more of a metaphor, an explanation, a case study in magical thinking. At the start of the book, the author tells his little daughter that he will score 10 points during a single racing season, then proceeds to participate in criterium races and fail spectacularly week after week.
But this plot line merely serves as a trajectory for the real story - a story of surviving childhood abuse, emerging damaged, then wondering for the rest of your life whether you're human or a piece of garbage. In adulthood, the author considers himself cursed, a monster. He struggles to stay in control, but the past haunts him and he worries about being a fit parent and husband. He believes that cycling keeps the monster in him at bay. And winning 10 points for his daughter might just have the power to lift the curse entirely.
Reading the memoir and trying to process it as such, I must admit that I found the 10 points theme to be overbearing and at times distracting. The writing is good. Bill Strickland excels at creating a visceral sense of understanding between himself and the reader. Repeatedly I found myself lost in his past, in his life, in his very sensations. In contrast to this, the overarching storyline of the 10 points feels forced, packaged. Like maybe the author had written the book differently, and then some editor swooped in and tried to make it more marketable for those who like the "top 10 ways to tackle hills" types of articles. I don't know how else to explain it.
Could the story have been told without the 10 points theme being so overt? I honestly think that it could. The book is really a rich collection of snippets, flashbacks to various incidents in the writer's life, and there are other ways in which these could have been tied together. The narrative style is jewel-like, seductive, while somehow also managing to come across as sparse and reserved. It is part American Gothic, part John Updike, but replete with its own, uniquely Stricklandian, characteristics.
In a way Ten Points reads more like a novel than a memoir, and some characters feel more believable than others. The incidents from the past, despite how dramatic some of them are, read as believable, as do the parts about racing. But in the present-day dialogue with the wife and daughter, the things they say are sometimes too well-phrased, too conveniently meaningful. In those instances I could practically feel the author trying to wrangle them into the 10 points plot.
At his best, Bill Strickland is the sort of natural storyteller who can engage an audience with a description of an Idaho cornfield. He can stir the reader into alternating states of wistfulness and fear within a single paragraph. He is a master of subtle foreshadowing. I want more of all that, less meta-narrative.
Writing about this book, I find myself wishing I hadn't interacted with the author prior. Because now I am hyper-aware of him as a real person and nervous about how he will feel reading this. But maybe that's arrogant. After all, who the heck am I and what does it matter what I think. I am describing the book as a reader, not as a critic. And I continue to follow Bill Strickland's writing with interest.