"We're going to have a lot of fun today!" a golfer declares on the first tee of the New Course in Oliver Horovitz's new memoir, An American Caddie in St. Andrews. By this point in the book, we all know this to be the kiss of death—almost immediately, the guy starts cursing, throwing clubs and bullying Horovitz, the young American assigned to his bag. The punchline arrives before the turn: "So," the guy turns and says to Horovitz, "Do you ever have to caddie for any real assholes out here?"
Horovitz rightly lets the joke hang at the end of a chapter, but there's something essential embedded in this scene—it's a perfect example of the jaw-dropping lack of self-awareness many golfers have around their caddies. The jock is a true fly on the wall, both there and not there. Caddie memoirs are a time-honored staple of golf writing because the profession tends to self-select keen observers of human behavior. The latest entries in the caddie-lit derby both were written by affluent New Yorkers: Horovitz is the son of a prominent playwright, while John Dunn, author of Loopers, grew up playing at the Country Club of Fairfield in Connecticut. Both chronicle boozy nights in the Auld Grey Toon, and both place family ties at the emotional center of the book. Those elements aside, the two part company fairly dramatically. The major difference between them is time, and the perspective that it grants a writer.
American Caddie is a coming-of-age tale, with many of the self-conscious tics common to the form firmly in place. Horovitz, upon graduating from high school, learns he's been accepted to Harvard but that his matriculation has been deferred, thus leaving him with that rare and wonderful thing—the "gap year." He arrives in St. Andrews as a green teenaged caddie and quickly immerses himself in the insular world of the shack, with the expected rogue's gallery of Scots broguing and burring and ach'ing and fooking their way through long days on the links. Over the course of four summers, the Yank rises through the ranks, taking many deep and self-steeling breaths along the way. "Respect isn't given freely out here. It has to be earned. And that's what I intend to do." (Lines like these abound, for what it's worth.) American Caddie is at its best spilling on some of the coded jargon and secret signs of the Old Course caddies, like what it means when your guy holds the flagstick straight over his head. (It's not nice.) And there are a handful of worthwhile anecdotes from Horovitz's loops, as well. Most memorably, he sketches a moving scene of a round with the son of "Champagne" Tony Lema, who returns twice a decade to the Old Course, scene of the greatest triumph for a father tragically lost long before his time.
American Caddie bogs down when it leaves the links, though. Scenes of college life that break up the caddying chapters are only marginally more interesting for being set at Harvard. The basic pattern is of the author encountering one of a fairly typical set of early-twenty-something obstacles (a mean boss; a challenging school project; a bad break-up with a girl) and eventually overcoming them. The exception is in the chapters involving the author's great-uncle Ken, a gardening-obsessed octogenarian who becomes his emotional anchor in town. With Uncle Ken, Horovitz discovers another St. Andrews, one far from the tourist mobs packing the Dunvegan, a gentle and sedate place of flower shows and afternoon tea. Gradually, a portrait of a deep friendship emerges, but it doesn't quite save American Caddie from feeling slight—exactly the way most of our youthful summer jobs look in the rearview mirror.
John Dunn, by contrast, is a “lifer,” though the publication of Loopers may change that. (Full disclosure: I have known Dunn, both personally and professionally, for ten years.) Many people have a window in life, however brief, where the possibilities seem limitless—for love, for travel, for trying on new identities. Jobs, kids and responsibility eventually narrow our paths (and broaden it in other ways, of course), but it's easy to daydream about the road not taken. In earlier eras, freedom-craving kids might have run away with the circus or joined the merchant fleet—Dunn chose club caddying as a means of exploring the world. His account takes us from the conservative bastions of Fairfield County to the nouveau riche jet-in retreats of the mountain west to the elite clubs of the world (Shinnecock Hills, Augusta National) to "caddie heaven"—Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
Dunn finds plenty of storytelling ground in exploring the radical differences in caddie culture from place to place. Initiation rites are, as always, a good source of material—his trials range from the physical (sprinting after carts at Sherwood) to the psychological (Augusta National's bizarre phone interview process). We get the requisite celeb sightings (Will Smith, Joe Pesci) and bad golfer behavior, but also an unvarnished look at the dark side of the loopers' world. What happens when the body breaks down after decades of humping bags over hill and dale? Most have no health care or retirement plan to fall back on; some slide into alcoholism and poverty. "Golf ruins lives," says one fatalistic Palm Desert philosopher. The flip side of all this is the raw and ribald humor common to service professions—quietly wearing a mask of polite indifference allows one plenty of time to concoct some potent lines. One caddie's description of the Stanwich Club—as a preppy girl with something…surprising…under her skirt—is both unnerving and hilarious.
As his cross-country (and international) journey unfolds, Dunn often finds himself most at home at the margins—shoulder season in an emptied-out ski town, say, or playing Royal Dornoch in a blinding and all-consuming fog, or hitchhiking clear across the country with his golf clubs. It's easy to get swept away by the hopped-up joy that comes through in these passages. Dunn's style is nothing if not colorful—loose and breezy, yet thoroughly evocative.
His freedom comes at a price, though. Girlfriends come and go, and there are times when he seems to be putting a happy face on some pretty raw living conditions. But these things pale in comparison to the static coming from home. For much of the memoir, his father's disapproval of his career choice presents itself as a low but noticeable hum in the background. His Connecticut interludes are marked by strained and awkward conversations—the product of a profound and long-standing communication gap between a father predisposed toward order and stability and a son hungry for adventure.
For all of his magical moments on the great courses of the world, Dunn worried that to his father, "it wouldn't have changed his perspective…that one day my carefree lifestyle was going to lose its luster and my nonexistent resume would read inexperienced, indecisive, unreliable." The narrative slowly gains momentum as the reader begins to question Dunn's motivations for pursuing the golf bum's dream—he seems to be both running toward and away from something. When the two men finally break the ice, the effect is powerful. Loopers ends up turning in an honest and wholly recognizable expression of family life—that our relationships may be far from perfect, but they are still capable of yielding hard-earned moments of beauty.
An American Caddie in St. Andrews, by Oliver Horovitz. (Gotham; $26)
Loopers, by John Dunn. (Crown; $25)