Jake Goetz reviews “Coach Fitz” by Tom Lee
by Tom Lee
ISBN : 9781925336900
Reviewed by JAKE GOETZ
Ever since the Little Athletics of my youth, I’ve always felt Australia to be a sporting nation. One that if viewed from an alien planet, could be mistaken as preparing for war through daily gym appointments, jogs and football. From my earthly confinement though, it is perhaps easier to consider this nation’s love of sport, or fitness more generally, as a type of religion: one in which people seek a ‘higher’ (endorphin-fuelled) meaning in life, or at least, a communal sense of belonging bought on by the routine devotion to a particular activity. Reading through Tom Lee’s debut book, Coach Fitz, it was hard for me not to reflect back on such feelings, and to then also look forward, following Lee’s ability to craft a narrative around a national fixation not often found in the pages of Australian literature.
Coach Fitz is narrated from the first-person perspective of the main character, Tom, who like the author himself, grew up near Orange in regional New South Wales. From the outset we come to understand Tom through his youth – as a boy plagued by self-consciousness and struggling to come to terms with his masculinity:
I began with a small body. Late to mature, I measured myself against my thicker, hairier peers. I sought advice from the magazines that displayed the bodies I desired. I needed muscle, a good layer of it, to make up for my lack of pubic hair (1).
Living in Sydney’s inner-city, Tom is now in what we gather to be his late 20s, and finds himself in a similar ‘emotional rift’ (3). Spurred on by thoughts of his once supportive, and recently deceased, grandfather, and the inner-crises provoked by the time he spent abroad with his ex-girlfriend, Alex, he again seeks to ‘use exercise to bring focus’ to his life (3). Employing the efforts of Coach Fitz – a middle-aged woman ‘rumoured’ to have once been an exceptional long-distance runner, as well as a student of psychoanalysis in the UK – Tom becomes immersed in her ‘training philosophy: a dynamic relationship between exercise of controlled intensity and a steadily growing curiosity about places, buildings, aesthetic and history’ (10). Fields which no doubt draw from author Tom Lee’s own interest in ‘landscape, technology and the senses’, and his experience as a lecturer in the School of Design at the University of Technology, Sydney (Author bio, back-cover).
If exercise can be considered a type of religion, then the book’s key activity, jogging, is the main form of prayer, or perhaps more apt, meditation: as Coach Fitz equips Tom with his very own mantra or ‘breath friend’: ‘hick-a-chee’ (25). The first half of the book centres around the pair indulging in the act of jogging and provides the narrative (to use the words of Tom) with a ‘direct, unmediated, sensory immersion’ in the micro-environments of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets (44). A narratological approach that harks back to Modernist texts such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses. On their first jog through Centennial Park, for example, we are taken through a ‘gauntlet of Moreton Bay figs, their roots a web of tripwires in the sandy soil’, before climbing a hill from where Tom sees a ‘pavilion through the trees sitting like a UFO from ancient Rome in the fields’ – drawing attention to the alien-like nature of colonial architecture in the context of the Australian environment (8). On a later jog the pair find themselves on Botany Road, running ‘past the remnants of brick factories converted into apartments, self-storage facilities and car dealerships’ – what coach Fitz is quick to quip as aspects of a ‘postmodern city’ – with ‘the ‘heritage-listed brick shells of industry giving birth to minimalist apartment blocks distinguishing themselves in a contradiction of gaudy minor flourishes …’ (77).
Through the pairs observations and conversations, Lee’s narrative finds itself balanced by richly-cinematic and critical evocations of the places the two pass through; the pursuit of ‘lasting delight, psychological expansion and nourishment of the spirit’ through jogging (13); and the ‘failings’ in Tom’s personal life, which Coach Fitz seeks to remediate and turn into strengths. One of the finest expressions of such psychological mentoring occurs during their run along the soft sands of Curl Curl Beach, when Coach Fitz remarks to Tom that ‘Adolescence is just perceived as this problematic, disagreeable thing that arrives and then stops … What I reckon happens is that young men don’t recognise they need to transform in order to live well’ (38). She goes on to meditate on how a flawed cultural understanding of masculinity has led to ‘raising generations of man-children who suckle on entertainment as a mild source of amusement’ (39). Feeding on such insights, Tom feels a renewed sense of empowerment, and goes on to reflect how such advice could have aided his past relationship with Alex, which saw him flee London in a state of ‘emotional turmoil’ (46).
Within such place-based dirges, surprising historical snippets also often emerge. During their jog through Sir Joseph Banks park, for example, Coach Fitz details that the area once housed a zoo, as well as a track renowned for foot races in the 1880s: the ‘golden age of sprint racing’ (28). This observation then leads into the story of Indigenous runner, Charlie Samuels, who ran ‘134 yards in 12.3 seconds in this very spot in 1888, barefoot, complete with the nicotine and alcohol addiction that was one of the many gifts bestowed on his people after white settlement’ (28). In light of such historical engagements, and for a text that is so attuned to the nuances of place, I could have only hoped for more aspects of Sydney’s Indigenous history to be elucidated – allowing for a more multi-faceted understanding of the places the two absorb themselves in. However, this aspect is not the key topic in the book, and perhaps Tom’s narcissistic desire to improve his own mental and physical health could act as an appropriate reflection of contemporary Australia’s inability to look past their own wants and needs in an un-reconciled country.
Plodding through Sydney’s varied ambiances, I couldn’t help but think of Coach Fitz as a type-of Antipodean feminising of French Marxist theorist, Guy Debord, who instead of walking a city’s streets, has been forced to run to keep up with the frantic nature of contemporary life. This psychogeographic, or physical and mental engagement with the world, coupled with Fitz’s belief in using ‘history, memory and imagination’ (30) to inform her jogging practice, enables Tom and Fitz like Debord, to criticise the shortcomings of capitalisms use of space, transcend the ‘métro, boulot, métro, dodo (subway, work, subway, sleep)’ of everyday life and nut out what it is to be a ‘man’ beyond the expectations propagated by mainstream culture (Waxman 2010, p. 87). Such a claim is illustrated in the book’s second section, where Tom feels that their jogging elongates time ‘and refreshes a sense of the city’ (22). Even earlier in the book, following their first meeting, Tom is so enthused by Coach Fitz’s practice and the idea of becoming ‘faster on foot, sensitive to the environment and mentally resilient’ that he takes on extra work and moves from his Balmain house into his beloved Honda Odyssey in order to save the money to pay Coach Fitz (11). This drastic transition into a car-sleeping and fitness-obsessed bohemian is rolled out in just over one page of the book, and was perhaps a part of the narrative that I felt could have been better realised.
Through Coach Fitz’s attempts to remedy Tom’s ‘failings’, Tom too eventually uncovers cracks in the mental and physical make-up of Fitz, such as her smartphone use during practice, which goes against her spatially immersive training exercises, and the ‘grog-lover’ scent she often carries on their jogs (59-60). Following a bout of beer-drinking and novelty games at Coach Fitz’s house in Annandale one afternoon, a drunk and naked Fitz embraces Tom in her bathroom. Tired of the ‘discrepancies’ in Coach Fitz’s ‘theory and practice’ (106), and feeling confident enough in his own devices, Tom flees the scene and his relationship with Fitz: seeking to refine his own spatially-engaged and psychologically-charged fitness training methods. This leads into the second half of the narrative, which centres on Tom mentoring his ex-girlfriend’s brother, Morgan: providing him with the opportunity to put his own methods into practice. It isn’t long though, before he again feels plagued by a self-consciousness reminiscent of his youth – recalling Fitz’s advice, that men fail to understand they need ‘to transform in order to live well’ (38). The situation is only made more troubling by his perverse attempts to infiltrate Morgan’s family in a somewhat demented longing for Alex, and to, in his own words: ‘observe their phenotypical relatedness and share in the general effervescence of their group behaviour’ (192).
In addition to the complex and often humorous relationships on display in Coach Fitz, I feel the book’s greatest merit lies in the steady jogging rhythm of Lee’s prose, the ode-like evocations of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets, and a philosophy of remaining open, aware and engaged with one’s environment. I like to think of it as a wake-up call to all those locked in a passive discourse with the world, and a critical engagement with what it is to try and truly see, hear, taste and feel a place. As (the character) Tom ruminates after a swim at Bondi: ‘I spent the afternoon swimming and uttering expressions of deep thanks to the climate and geography’ (140). Anyone interested in exercise and its psychological imperatives; the complexities of masculinity and male adolescence; or Sydney’s geography, history, ecology or architecture, will find a point of immersion, and a rewarding read, in Tom Lee’s debut book.
Waxman, L 2010, ‘Writing A Few Steps in a Revolution of Everyday Life’, PhD Thesis, New York University, viewed 15 April 2017, via ProQuest database.
JAKE GOETZ lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Creative Writing from Griffith University. His poetry has most recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Overland, Plumwood Mountain, Tell Me Like You Mean It Vol. 2, Rabbit, Pink Cover Zine, past simple, Otoliths and Cordite. His first book, meditations with passing water, a long-poem written alongside the Maiwar (Brisbane River) was published by Rabbit in 2018. He edits Marrickville Pause.