cover image Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports

Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports

John Branch. Norton, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-324-00669-5

Branch (The Last Cowboys) showcases his keen ability to find unusual human interest angles in sports and culture journalism in this expansive collection. The opening section, “Climbing and Falling,” starts off with a restrained, inquisitive consideration of the aftermath of an avalanche in the Pulitzer-winning “Snow Fall,” which is contrasted by “The Dawn Wall,”a triumphant portrait of climbers scaling El Capitan on Yosemite unassisted. Branch’s pitch-perfect “On League Night, A 300 Game Lives” spotlights a man who, after bowling his first perfect game, drops dead of a heart attack, reminding readers that “life is not a blurb.” In “The Lady Jaguars,” he brings readers into the locker room with a losing girl’s reform school basketball team, with bracing insights on poverty and class in rural Tennessee. Other selections veer into obscure scenes, such as the Intergroom dog grooming show (“Where Creativity Wags Its Tail”), bidding wars to the right to hunt bighorn rams (“The Ultimate Pursuit”), or exhibitions of world-class Rubik’s Cube aficionados (“Children of the Cube”). The final section, “Dying and Living,” gathers somber pieces, including an interview with the pastor of a church within view of where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others crashed. Branch delivers consistently smart, startling observations—and offers something for every reader, whether or not they’d consider themselves “sports fans.” (June)