From the sidelines, Michele A’Court

Dan Carter: My Story
Dan Carter with Duncan Greive
Upstart Press, $50.00
ISBN 9781927262382

Here’s a crazy idea – get someone who doesn’t give a toss about rugby to review the autobiography of the world’s greatest rugby union fly-half. Madness.

Dan Carter: My Story has featured on the bestseller lists since it was launched just days after the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup win last October – the game (spoiler alert) New Zealand won, in which Dan Carter kicked four penalties, two conversions and a drop goal, and was named the Man of the Match. A game I didn’t watch. (I know – handing in my New Zealand passport now.) But, after initial hesitation, I figured Carter, his writing collaborator Duncan Greive, and their book, would cheerfully survive no matter what I thought. It seemed that me reviewing it was a risk that wouldn’t involve a knockout win or loss for anyone.

And, really, I was curious. I might not be a fan of the game, but I am a fan of the genre. Our bookshelves heave with biography, autobiography and memoir. I adore outrageous anecdotes about wild times, revelations, confessions, a peek behind the public veil. It’s a chance to be at the dinner party with the cool people, or backstage, or inside someone’s head. The best autobiographies let you eavesdrop on conversations, uncover private truths behind public rumours, let you feel like you were there.

We’re naturally fascinated, I think, by how people find (or construct) a narrative to explain their lives and unearth meaning in chaos. Which is also why people write autobiographies – an exercise in gaining perspective as they take a long look back, set the record straight, explain dark times, defend bad behaviour, or occasionally offer an apology, coupled with the drive to tell a bloody good yarn.

Dan Carter: My Story does most of those things. There’s a bit of record-straightening (overseas sabbaticals, for example, were popularly viewed as money-grabs, but Carter explains they were necessary to reignite his passion for the game); insights into what went on inside his head in a career punctuated by injuries; and occasional glimpses into boisterous off-field shenanigans. I still can’t quite get the image out of my head of Carter power-chucking at his 21st birthday party while standing on the roof of his house.

You certainly get a tidy narrative structure as Carter looks back to the beginning of his life in rugby, and works out how he made it to the end.

The book opens with a delightful note from Greive – adept at writing on sport, music, people and culture – about how he came to collaborate on this book. There’s their first meeting when Dan was briefly (sorry) even more famous for appearing on billboards in his undies than he was for playing on a paddock in shorts; and the more recent meeting when a running-late-and-sweaty Greive considers the pros and cons of writing Carter’s life story. Greive clearly becomes genuinely fond of Carter, which sets up a relationship of trust between the reader and the words. The narrative from there is told in the first person – you know Greive is the intermediary, but you can believe that the voice is authentically Carter’s own.

Carter’s story begins a few hours after that 2015 Rugby World Cup final, a winner’s medal around his neck, having just played his last game for the All Blacks. From there, the story is chronological – the kid growing up in Southbridge on the Canterbury plains where his Dad famously built him rugby goalposts beside the family home for his 8th birthday, through his career with the Crusaders and the All Blacks, the triumphs and disasters, trophies and injuries – all culminating in that final game which would, in his own words, define his career.

Those chapters are interspersed with Carter’s diary of his final playing year. Despite the fact that we know how it ends – in personal and team victory – it lends some sense of immediacy and urgency to the narrative. It’s the moment he’s been focused on throughout his playing years and, as readers, we end up focusing on it, too.

There aren’t the kind of revelations in here that throw cats amongst pigeons – no sudden, “I always hated that bastard” – but there were surprises for me. First, there’s all the crying. I had no idea that rugby players – top level, club rugby, schoolboy, whatever – weep openly in the changing rooms after a loss. I’d thought it was all towel-flicking and liniment, but apparently they sob for quite some time before they head out drinking. Suddenly, I was intrigued.

And a tiny bit horrified at the drinking culture, where downing shots and skulling beers was used as management-sanctioned punishment for bad behaviour. Sometimes, that bad behaviour was drinking, so it seems bizarre that forcing more booze down a culprit’s throat is a punishment that fits the crime.

I’m also intrigued by Carter’s references to his mental struggles – “red head” and “going to dark places”, and useful sessions with Gilbert Enoka, the All Blacks’ “mental skills coach” – which, in my world, would be called “anxiety”, “depression” and “shrink” but, despite the euphemisms, I admire the honesty.

But this is the story of Carter’s sporting life, not his life. There are intimate play-by-play descriptions of what happened on the field, but only broad strokes about life off it. The raciest it gets is possibly the time he wore jandals into a Louis Vuitton store in Paris and bought a very expensive jacket to stick a finger up at sneering French shop assistants. He still wears the jacket.

Bits of it read like a post-rugby career pitch – Carter mentions what a great model the All Blacks’ modern culture would be for corporates enough times to make me think he might launch into business coaching when he gets back from Perpignan. Either that, or providing investment advice to young players earning big rugby money for the first time, another recurring thought.

But what I most wanted, I couldn’t find. There are no romping anecdotes, no reconstructed dialogue, no witty repartee. In hospital with a major injury in Perpignan, he is befriended by a local, Benoit Brazes, and they’d “have long conversations about rugby”. Yes, but what did they say to each other? I can’t begin to imagine what that looks like.

Fights, disagreements and tensions are only hinted at. Carter’s storytelling style is to come in at the last scene of any drama, after it has been resolved. If Carter wrote one of the Gospels, the part about the crucifixion would go: “Some of the guys let Jesus down a bit and he had a rough couple of days, but he came back ok. All good.”

I checked the spines of those autobiographies at home and realised they’re all written by musicians, actors, writers, filmmakers, entertainers – people who are in the business of talking and/or showing off. And that’s not who Carter is – not a show-off, not even (by his own admission) much of a talker, not a dinner party storyteller.

For me, this was (for the most part) a failed experiment. No-one should feel bad about that. I struggle to relate to a performance genre where the options are restricted to win or lose. I love a game that is about special moments, rather than comparisons with other people’s moments and how they add up against each other. Being the best doesn’t interest me as much as being terrific.

And, oddly, that’s how the book kind of won me over. Not the statistics and trophies, but the shy, brave, tenacious and loyal man at the heart of it.

Just after I finished the book, I heard on the radio that Carter had been pronounced “Comeback Athlete of the Year” at the prestigious Laureus international sports awards in Berlin. I felt a rush of pride, and got a bit weepy. So that’s new.

Michele A’Court is an Auckland comedian and writer.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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