Saturday, June 6, 2015

Novelist Beard connects with 'Swing'

"[T]he man next to me seems to have grown out of the sidewalk, with only his torso having emerged so far. He is hip-deep in the concrete and looks as though he has been there forever, waiting for a young King Arthur, me perhaps, to pull him free. He is a man; there is no doubting that, even though I am looking down at him."

Thus is eleven-year-old Henry Graham introduced to three-foot-tall Korean War veteran John Kostka, sawed off just below the torso. Only he can't tell anyone about his encounter, because he should have been on his way home from school instead of waiting for the bus to pick him up outside of Three Rivers Stadium. The year is 1971, Henry's Pittsburgh Pirates are on the brink of the World Series, and with his childhood coming apart at the seams his team is his only constant.

Henry's father, who was supposed to have taken him to the game against the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, has just left, trading in his wife for a younger model. Henry fills the sudden void in his life with his mysterious new acquaintance, who scoots down the sidewalk on his fists, swinging his truncated body forward on his powerful arms.

It's the power of his personality that wins Henry. Never for a moment does his handicap seem to diminish his zest for living. Their friendship flourishes as the Pirates battle the Baltimore Orioles for baseball's crown in the World Series and deepens over the ensuing year, leaving an imprint so indelible the boy carries it well into adulthood, long after their paths have separated.

Philip Beard's Swing opens with Henry receiving notice of John's death, a formal invitation at the direction of the deceased to what sounds more like a party than a funeral. Now grown, with a wife and two children of his own, Henry isn't optimistic he'll be able to attend. But as the novel unfolds on twin tracks, one following Henry's childhood, the other detailing a week in the present, Henry's attending John's funeral is one of the few things the reader can bank on happening.

While the Pirates are central to young Henry's life, their grip recedes long before he meets his wife, whose battle with breast cancer occupies infinitely more real estate in his adult mind. Now settled 500 miles north of Pittsburgh in upstate New York, Henry has followed in his father's footsteps as an academic, teaching English and writing at a small college. Despite his lifelong habit of doing the opposite of whatever he figures his father would in any given situation, he finds himself struggling when faced with similar temptations.

Beard does a fantastic job of weaving the storylines, building tension particularly as the present-day story climaxes. He distinguishes the two by point of view, telling young Henry's tale in the first person and adult Henry's in third person, an alternating vantage that feels awkward for a moment early on, but slips seamlessly into the background by the third or fourth chapter. In hindsight, it's a necessary device to be able to fully include Henry's wife and teen daughter in the current-day story.

It's hardly unusual for new baseball novels to boast some kind of comparison with Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, and indeed the back cover of Swing contains such language. They're such different stories, however, that the parallel doesn't extend much beyond "baseball novel with way more to it." While the sport is central to Swing, it's really a story of family, loss, love, and plumbing the depths of our own character. Would we do as Henry does? Can we even say, without having confronted the same temptations?


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