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Playing in Time

Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories

From jazz fantasy camp to running a movie studio; from a fight between an old guy and a fat guy to a fear of clowns—Carlo Rotella’s Playing in Time delivers good stories full of vivid characters, all told with the unique voice and humor that have garnered Rotella many devoted readers in the New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, and Washington Post Magazine, among others. The two dozen essays in Playing in Time, some of which have never before been published, revolve around the themes and obsessions that have characterized Rotella’s writing from the start: boxing, music, writers, and cities. What holds them together is Rotella’s unique focus on people, craft, and what floats outside the mainstream. “Playing in time” refers to how people make beauty and meaning while working within the constraints and limits forced on them by life, and in his writing Rotella transforms the craft and beauty he so admires in others into an art of his own.

Rotella is best known for his writings on boxing, and his essays here do not disappoint. It’s a topic that he turns to for its colorful characters, compelling settings, and formidable life lessons both in and out of the ring. He gives us tales of an older boxer who keeps unretiring and a welterweight who is “about as rich and famous as a 147-pound fighter can get these days,” and a hilarious rumination on why Muhammad Ali’s phrase “I am the greatest” began appearing (in the mouth of Epeus) in translations of The Iliad around 1987. His essays on blues, crime and science fiction writers, and urban spaces are equally and deftly engaging, combining an artist’s eye for detail with a scholar’s sense of research, whether taking us to visit detective writer George Pelecanos or to dance with the proprietress of the Baby Doll Polka Club next to Midway Airport in Chicago.

Rotella’s essays are always smart, frequently funny, and consistently surprising. This collection will be welcomed by his many fans and will bring his inimitable style and approach to an even wider audience.


“It’s a tremendous pleasure to tour America with Carlo Rotella, whose essays take us from a Slovenian-Cleveland-style polka club in Chicago, to a ‘jazz fantasy camp’ in upstate New York, to the Las Vegas mall where Floyd Mayweather Jr. is getting a pedicure. Full of sharp dialogue, true to the ideals of craft and adventure, this essay collection reads like a great road novel.”

Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed

“Carlo Rotella shows us how much we’ve been missing in the years since he published his last book. In this collection of articles and essays about fencers, boxers, nightmares, Providence and Jack Vance—to name a few—he displays a remarkable talent for piercing observations and deftly-turned phrases. Yet within the disciplined fireworks of his style, true mastery is displayed by a narrator whose insight into human shortcomings is matched by his empathy for them. No matter where Rotella goes, from a fighter’s corner in Norfolk, Virginia to a seminar on Plato at New York University, he is immediately at home. Carlo Rotella is one of the most important non-fiction writers working in America today.”

Robert Anasi, author of The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle and The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn

“Carlo Rotella’s breezily written evocations--of places like the Checkerboard Lounge or the Baby Doll Polka Club, of Linwood Taylor and the myth of the perfect bluesman, of Larry Holmes’s jump jab in the ring, and of the SciFi experience of reading Jack Vance in Chicago--merge into an autobiographical kaleidoscope of a formative neighborhood.”

Werner Sollors, Harvard University

“It’s fair to call Carlo Rotella a poet of urban life, alive to the freedom that cities offer us to pursue lives of our own devising, and of masculinity and the ways men lose and find themselves in their passions.”

National (UAE)

“Carlo Rotella is an old-fashioned journalist in the best sense of the term: he doesn’t just visit the people and places he writes about, he inhabits them.  His articles and essays are models of empathy and understanding.  And because he is a man who appreciates craft— the craft of boxers, fencers, musicians, and clowns—his own work always strikes the right celebratory note, the one that ends with just the slightest inflection of melancholy—which, unparadoxically, is what makes his work a pleasure to read.”

Arthur Krystal

"The strength of his new essay collection comes from the odd places he finds these headliners: on the suburban D.C.-area blues circuit, in Chicago’s polka clubs and at fantasy jazz camps in the Northeast. But like other greats of the nonfiction craft—Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan—Rotella’s own personality eventually comes through."

Time Out Chicago

“A present figure, but not a narcissistic one; Carlo Rotella is a rare kind of first-person journalist, one that understands that while the true subject of any article with an ‘I’ is the author, that his presence has altered the event and that his objectivity has been compromised, none of these things should excuse the navel-gazing so many of his peers succumb to. . . . the real meta-subject in Playing in Time is . . . how a great writer, by considering himself in relation to what he’s witnessing, has used compassion to show both the humor and the melancholy in all the resulting forms.  The work is superb throughout, but it’s Rotella’s presence, and his education as a writer told through encounters with others, that makes the work resonate far beyond its meticulous immediacy.”

Coffin Factory

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Lefty Dizz Version

    The Genre Artist
    The Year of the Blues
    The Professor of Micropopularity
    The Saberist
    A Man of Deep Conviction
    A History of Violence
    Boxing Stories
    Mirror, Mirror
    The Prospect
    The Biggest Entertainer in Entertainment
    Shannon vs. the Russians
    After the Gloves Came Off
    The Greatest
    Champion at Twilight
    Bedtime Story
    The Elements of Providence
    Someone Else’s Chicago
    The Dogs of South Shore
    Into South Shore
    Un Clown Biologique
    The Two Jameses
    Three Landscapes, with Gamblers
    The Mouse Sled
    A Game
    Playing in Time


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