Books: The Bracket Game

March is that mad month during which brackets reign—and, long before the arrival of April showers, rain down on you and, even more importantly, on me.

Bracketology, on the other hand, is destined for the long haul. It is the clever conceit of two writers, Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir, who embraced the form of the NCAA basketball tournament to address all the pressing issues of life. What is the best-ever candy bar? Bob Dylan cover song? Hairstyle? (Fyi, their answers are: Neilson's Crispy Crunch bar; Roger McGuinn's "Up to Me" and "The Hillary."

Their book, "The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything," is nothing less—and nothing more—than a quantum improvement over that old desert-island question (10 albums, 10 books, 10 movies) or the more abbreviated version: what's your favorite album/book/movie? Those very questions caused my wife to dub our five-week road trip through Europe "the honeymoon from hell"—and, 25 years later, I still don't have her answers. But even if both parties start out simpatico, such queries typically produce hemming and hawing, iffing and butting and, in the end, demurral.

Bracketology is a way—a rather infectious way—to confront that problem and come away with a definitive answer to any question. And it is so simple, so neat and elegant, that it leaves you with only one last question: why didn't I think of this? You take any category, supply 32 reasonable answers and put them in tournament brackets. (You can even go 64 deep if you feel compelled to mimic NCAA basketball.) You may have no idea what the final answer will be. But it turns out to be far easier to produce answers one by one when it is an either/or proposition. Your gut always seems to know which you prefer—U2 or Dave Matthews, "Casablanca" or "The Maltese Falcon," peaches or apples. And since it's your tournament, you are always right.

The two enlightened bracketologists present 101 timeless and amusing debates, played out by them and assorted "experts" in the various subject matters. So for example in "Jock Films," one of Sandomir's exercises (and a subject in which I claim some expertise too), the brackets reveal something like this. "Bull Durham" beats "The Natural" in the first round, while "Chariots of Fire" bumps "Jerry Maguire" and "Slap Shot" slips by "Breaking Away." And so it goes "game" by "game," "round" by "round," until Sandomir reaches a "Final Four" of "Hoop Dreams, "Field of Dreams," "Raging Bull" and "Hoosiers." The two basketball movies fall in the semis and in the championship Scorsese's boxing classic knocks out the mystical baseball yarn.

And, of course, he is right—if only for him. Because after you get over marveling at all the cleverness, wit and good, clean fun, you begin to get distressed and perhaps even enraged at the dubious judgments and wretched taste of some of these arbiters. Isn't "The Hustler," at the very least, a Final Four sports movie? And how can the saccharine "Field of Dreams" reach the finals, while John Sayles's brilliant baseball movie "Eight Men Out" doesn't make it out of the first round? (That it actually lost to "Brian's Song" further exposes Sandomir's schmaltz problem.)

Admittedly, the editors prepare you for some bad taste. Literally! In the introduction, Reiter showcases a bracket called "Last Bites," a seductive inquiry into one's choice for a final, mortal taste. It's a nifty notion, but in Reiter's universe, banana actually trumps both Springbank 15-year-old Scotch and a Peter Luger's porterhouse steak before it loses, in the final, to Hebrew National Salami. A swell salami, no doubt, but a dubious last call. (With a chance for redemption in the Male Vices competition, bacon loses in the semis, rather ironically, to the eventual winner "abuse of irony.")

The categories are mostly smart and sometimes brilliant—Jew/Not a Jew, Baseball Myths, Film Deaths, Conspiracy Theories and Marital Arguments (which, of course, should have major overlap with male vices). And some of the bracketologists get it right, or at least render a sound, final judgment. In the category "Hip," for example, Miles Davis wins the title over "young Dylan" after "young Dylan" ousts "old Dylan" in the semis. (That match-up would sell out the Superdome.) And in "Newspaper Headlines," the Chicago Tribune's immortal blunder, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, triumphs over the New York Post's tabloid gem, HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.

Among the more unfortunate flaws in their exercises is a bias in favor of Duke. One bracketologist actually picked Duke-North Carolina as "Best Rivalry," over Red Sox-Yankees (as well as over Celtics-Rangers, which, for the uninitiated, is a Glasgow blood feud). And another picks Duke star Christian Laettner's game-winner against Kentucky as the greatest "March Madness Moment." No moment from a regional, like Laettner's, can ever trump one from the finals. And that one should be Lorenzo Charles' slam-dunk at the buzzer to upset Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma. The winning basket coupled with the memory of North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano careening around the court in a frenzy of disbelief and exhilaration is the one for the ages.

The inevitable result of disenchantment with their wrong-headed answers is the creation of your own questions with your own right answers. I picked "Russian Classics" rather than "Boston Sports Heroes" for an obvious reason—to show off my intellectual breadth rather than my more prominent and parochial passion. In the round of 16, there were still three Dostoevskys, two Tolstoys and two Solzhenitsyns along with some lesser lights (think of them as the mid-majors) like Babel, Goncharov, Lermontov, Bulgakov and Sholokhov. I then surprised myself when 19th-century superstars Pushkin, Gogol and Turgenev were are all bounced and five 20th-century works—"Cancer Ward," "Red Cavalry and Other Stories," "The Master and Margarita," "And Quiet Flows the Don," "Doctor Zhivago"—reached the Elite Eight.

But there were no more surprises. The final was a match-up of obvious No. 1 seeds: Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" versus Tolstoy's "War and Peace." I chose "War and Peace" as the winner without a moment's hesitation. Maybe the brothers K were worn out by a devil of a tussle with "Anna Karenina" in the semis. More likely my taste for great opening lines, sweet, radiant Natasha and the epic sweep of war tipped the scales to Tolstoy. And if you have any problem with that…well then I'm just going to pick up my bracket and go home.

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