Golf pencils don't come with erasers, which may explain why William Hallberg's The Soul of Golf (Fawcett Columbine, $25) was published with its title intact. The Soul of William Hallberg seems more apt. A nonfiction book with the rhetorical excesses of academy fiction, Soul is the story of a confessed "spiritual defective" who seeks redemption while on a summerlong American golf odyssey. "Over the past few years, I've allowed self-indulgence to swell inside my middle-aged soul," Hallberg writes. "Beer, lust, bad food, inertia, fiscal irresponsibility...and now golf."
The model for his road journal is clearly Blue Highways: A Journey into America, the 1982 best-seller by William Least Heat Moon. Like Moon, Hallberg is a small-town college English teacher who's separated from his wife. Like Moon he has a troubled mind and a head full of book learning. Like Moon he sets out alone in an old vehicle, hoping to find direction on America's back roads. Unlike Moon, though, he takes his golf clubs.
It's a miracle that the author can swing a club, given the size of the chip on his shoulder. His college degrees, he tells us, are from "humble midwestern land-grant universities." His diet consists of Grand Slam Breakfasts from Denny's, quarts of beer, Whoppers, Big Gulp drinks and Yoo-Hoos. He is a "pauper"; college teachers, he explains, are the "stoop laborers" of education. (On the other hand, the reader learns that Hallberg played some pretty exclusive golf courses in his youth, shrines like the Old Course at St. Andrews and Oakland Hills, near Detroit.)
This posturing mars the book, which is unfortunate because Hallberg, the author of a well-received golf novel (The Rub of the Green) and editor of an anthology of golf short stories (Perfect Lies), can be a graceful writer. Soul soars when he plays a round with two homeless Vietnam vets drying out at a Los Angeles V.A. hospital. The prose is also elevated by the landscape of the American West, which is austere enough to offset Hallberg's hyperbole. "I want to play golf above the clouds," he writes near Colorado's Mt. Massive Country Club, "in air so thin the ball will fly forever."
The Soul of Golf is both a travel book and a boomer's lament that he is an aging Peter Pan in spikes. Above all, though, it is a cautionary tale for those of us who would like to pop some Quaaludes, guzzle a six-pack of Lone Star, jump on a Harley and tear off to Cypress Point for a solitary round.
The question is: How many of us have that particular dream?