Why oh why aren’t there more sports novels? Sure, baseball (which, if Americans didn’t keep insisting was entertaining, would have vanished from the earth decades ago) has been ably represented on the page, and surfing gets a decent showing thanks to a few tubular practitioners, but what of basketball? What of boxing? What of ultimate frisbee, for Christ’s sake? There’s a wealth of marvelous nonfiction writing about damn near every discipline under the sun/floodlights, and there’s certainly no shortage of inspirational sports movies—with their plucky underdogs, grizzled coaches, and swelling orchestral scores—but, for whatever reason, novelists on the whole seem unable or unwilling to follow suit.
I say “on the whole,” because there are, of course, some notable exceptions, and I, as the GM of this exercise, have corralled those exceptions into one sweaty bull pen, where they await your armchair analysis.
Bellow you’ll find twenty-five of the greatest sports novels ever written. There would be dozens more, were it not for the fact that the Great Badminton/Curling/Gaelic Football/Handball/Squash/Luge Novel has, seemingly, yet to be published.
Now I’m sure I’ve missed a few forgotten gems of the genre, and yes, I could spend further hours trawling the internet for them, but mouthy urchins in flat caps are playing stickball in the street outside, the smell of fresh cut grass is wafting through my open window, fade-away threes from street ball maestros are arcing through the air, the comments section on this post has been turned off, and it’s just too damn nice a day to linger inside reading….
Bernard Malamud, The Natural
Despite some stiff competition in recent years, “the first serious novel about baseball“—in which a former wunderkind whose career was derailed by a bizarre shooting attempts an unlikely comeback sixteen years later—remains the gold standard for fiction about America’s favorite pastime.
Kwame Alexander, The Crossover
Alexander’s 2015 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award-winning YA novel-in-verse follows two basketball-loving twin brothers, Josh and Jordan Bell, whose bond begins to unravel in their junior year of high school when Jordan meets a girl.
Leonard Gardner, Fat City
Counting Joan Didion, Walker Percy, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson among its superfans, Gardner’s bleak 1959 novel (later made into an equally bleak film by John Huston) follows two doomed boxers in California’s central valley as they struggle to carve out lives for themselves.
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
The PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel about a Dutchman living in New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, who, guided by a Trinidadian friend, starts playing cricket at the Staten Island Cricket Club.
Chris Cleave, Gold
The story of two friends and professional cycling rivals—one chose family life, the other focused on her sport—in the years leading up to the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Jonathan Lee, High Dive
A reimagining of the IRA’s 1984 attempt to blow up Margaret Thatcher during the annual Conservative Party conference in Brighton, one of Lee’s three protagonists is Philip “Moose” Finch, a divorced hotel manager and former star diver now trying to make a new life for himself and his daughter.
Quan Barry, We Ride Upon Sticks
The most recent title on the list, Barry’s 2020 novel is set in the town where the accusations that led to the 1692 witch trials began and focuses on the 1989 Danvers High School Falcons field hockey team, who will do anything to make it to the state finals.
Tracy O’Neill, The Hopeful
Told in lyrical flashbacks from a psychiatrist’s couch, a teenage figure skating prodigy from a fracturing family breaks two vertebrae in a fall, leading to painkiller addiction and institutionalization.
Don DeLillo, End Zone
DeLillo’s sophomore effort is a light-hearted farce about Gary Harkness, a blocking back at a small college in West Texas during the school’s first integrated year, who spends his days playing football and contemplating nuclear war.
Michael Murphy, Golf in the Kingdom
I’d never heard of this one—about a young man who, while on layover in Scotland, runs into a mystical golfing expert who teaches him about golf and spirituality—but apparently it has sold over a million copies and is something of a bible in the (shudders) golf community.
Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me
Abbott’s soon-to-be-adapted eight novel is a tale of community hysteria, chaotic adolescent sexuality, and intense rivalries set in a tight-knit gymnastics community rocked by a violent death.
Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse
An Ojibwe man looks back on his youth, during which he was forced to endure one of Canada’s infamous residential schools for the forced assimilation of indigenous children and found solace in the game of hockey.
C. E. Morgan, The Sport of Kings
A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017, The Sport of Kings is the story of two horse racing families: one wealthy and white, a dynasty that stretches back to the founders of Kentucky; the other African-American, the descendants of their slaves.
James Salter, Solo Faces
Salter’s 1979 follow-up to Light Years is the story of Verne Rand, a disillusioned denizen of LA who flees to the Swiss Alps and achieves celebrity among the climbing community for a series of superhuman ascents.
Kerry Howley, Thrown
Less a conventional novel than a hybrid work of memoir, reportage, and imagination, in which a young philosophy graduate insinuates herself into the lives of two cage fighters—one a cocky prodigy, the other a battered journeyman.
Walter Tevis, The Hustler
Walter Tevis’ 1959 novel (adapted into an Academy Award-winning film starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleeson) of a young, small-time pool hustler, desperate to make it in the big leagues, who challenges the legendary Minnesota Fats.
David Storey, This Sporting Life
Made famous by the Richard Harris-starring kitchen sink adaptation, Booker Prize-winner Storey’s 1960 novel is the tale of a bitter young coal miner turned rugby player and his tempestuous relationship with his widowed landlady.
Jason Reynolds, Ghost
The first book in National Book Award finalist Reynolds’ acclaimed Track series follows a young sprinter navigating his troubled home life while also trying to become the fastest on his elite middle school track team.
Ross Raisin, A Natural
A closeted gay soccer player and an injured teammate’s estranged wife offer an intimate picture of life in the lower reaches of professional British football.
Kem Nunn, Tapping the Source
This National Book Award-nominated novel from the godfather of “Surf Noir” was the inspiration for Point Break. Enough said.
Frank Deford, Bliss, Remembered
From famed sportswriter Deford, a novel about a young American swimmer at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games who falls in love with a dashing German counterpart.
Howard Jacobson, The Mighty Walzer
Booker Prize-winner Jacobson’s semi-autobiographical comic tale of a young jewish ping-pong prodigy coming of age in 1950s Manchester.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
DFW’s 1000-page philosophical, screwball opus, partially set in an elite tennis academy run by memorable power couple James and Avril Incandenza.
Will Chancellor, A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall
A water polo Olympian whose dreams of greatness are dashed and then transformed embarks on an an epic journey, with his father in pursuit.
Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida
A troubled college wrestler succumbs to loneliness, obsession, and mania as he navigates the pressures of his senior season.