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Playing through 18 in America'

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Teenager recounts cross-country golf odyssey

It sometimes seems like every young writer has a coming-of-age story that needs to be gotten out of his or her system. Most of them tend to be semi-autobiographical after all, when you're young, your own experiences tend to feel incredibly significant.

However, few have the audacity to actually live such a story.

Dylan Dethier was your standard-issue middle-class teenager living in western Massachusetts. Two months before he was set to begin his freshman year at Williams College, he came up with an idea that he couldn't shake. With the blessing of his parents, Dethier decided to defer his first year of college and go for a trip around the country, hitting every one of the lower 48 states. And why?

To play golf.

Dethier relates the story of his journey in '18 in America' (Scribner, $25). Armed with nothing more than a few thousand dollars and a hand-me-down Suburu, this teenager hit the road. He didn't have a plan as such, but what he did have was a singular goal: to play at least 18 holes of golf in every single one of the continental United States (sorry Alaska and Hawaii; maybe next time) in the span of a single year.

The book recounts Dethier's trek as he plays courses that range from dusty, dilapidated roadside nine-holers to the very pinnacle of American golf the Pebble Beaches and Sawgrasses and such. He hits drives from atop mountains in Wyoming and putts through howling snows in Minnesota. He plays well and he plays poorly and he plays on.

Along the way, he meets a wide variety of people. Some of them are distant relatives or friends of friends. Others are relative strangers who heard his story and wanted to help. Still others are simply random playing partners that he encounters out on the links. He even meets Phil Mickelson.

But '18 in America' isn't just about golf. It's about one young man making his way through an America that he didn't understand nearly as well as he believed. There are encounters with surly police officers and genial park rangers. There is an attempted robbery in a truck stop parking lot and he nearly dies on a mountain pass. At various times, he turns 18, almost loses everything at a casino and loses his virginity.

It's a big trip.

It's rare to get the opportunity to hear the story of a boy becoming a man, but in many ways, that's what this book is. Golf is the subject and object, but it isn't always the center. The center is one young man, confronted with the truths of growing up. It's self-discovery by way of the fairway, realizations hatched in the rough. There's something fascinating about a kid who is capable of conceiving such an adventure, much less actually completing it.

He can also turn a decent phrase; his descriptions of the courses that moved him - and the people with whom he played are of particularly high quality. While Dethier does occasionally seem to fall in love with the sound of his own voice, it's rarely that detrimental. And he sometimes tries too hard for profundity; he's at his best when he lets the tale speak for itself. Still, this would be considered fine work by any writer, let alone one so young.

'18 in America' isn't a hole-in-one. It isn't an eagle. You could call it a birdie, but it's more of a well-earned par on a tough hole, saved by a solid bunker shot and a long curling putt. Literature, much like golf, isn't so much about where you go but how you get there. Dethier's book has its peaks and valleys, just as his journey did. All in all, it's a trip worth taking. 

Last modified on Friday, 07 June 2013 09:01

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