Chimney sweep/pickup basketball player Shane McCarthy hits the courts in 1999 San Francisco after a year sidelined by an injury. His wife, Lou, works feverishly to score in the Silicon Valley jackpot, certain they are on the cusp of real wealth; but for Shane, basketball is as important as breathing. Lou is on the fast track, Shane running in place, trying to make sense of chaos. Everywhere Shane sees the urban sprawl of decay, the detritus of an indifferent society where money is the only pass to the Emerald City.
There is only one missing element in the local neighborhood pickup basketball game, a young black player known as Sam. The talented young man has suddenly dropped off the radar after five years of hoop games, Shane ferrying Sam's gym bag in his van until he decides to track down the errant youth with Shane's younger brother, Jimmy, riding shotgun.
The search takes the brothers to the Potrero Hill projects, where Shane and Jimmy meet Debra, Sam's mother. In the projects, Shane is lost in another world, one far removed from dot-com glamour and conspicuous consumerism. In a culture clash of conflicting lifestyles, Shane glides between the excesses of Pacific Heights and the threatening shadows of the projects.
This is reality, not white-washed sitcom images of the good life but the mean streets, where everyone wants to escape the third-world mentality of poverty. The chasm between the haves and the have-not's is painfully obvious, fragile borders breaking down as the worlds collide. Helping Debra, Shane comes face to face with life without hope, where predators roam in plain sight.
Eric Martin writes with great energy, slipping from the gentrified yuppie renovations with their chrome and metal gyms to the projects, where real ball is played with attitude as serious as death. This is great storytelling: Tom Wolfe without the pompous strutting, Brett Easton Ellis without the precocious self-aggrandizement. Martin's got game. I care about these characters. I care about basketball (and I am not a sports fan). And I appreciate the significance of a society fueled by avarice, bulldozing everything in its path. Winners is vivid and engrossing, the protagonist a modern-day Everyman with heart and a conscience in a greedy, greedy world. Martin is that rare author who cuts to the bone - not a word wasted, pitch-perfect dialog and a cliffhanger ending that will leave you spinning.