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the man with two arms

10 august 2010

I read all the way through Billy Lombardo's new baseball novel The Man with Two Arms – anything I devote a full-page review to, I make sure actually to finish – but I was impelled through it mainly by a sense of impatient irritation. What is this book about? Where is he going with this cockamamie story? Am I supposed to care about any of this screwy stuff? are questions that occurred to me.

They don't seem to have occurred to the blurbers quoted on the dust jacket, distinguished baseball writers who compare The Man with Two Arms to The Natural (de rigueur) and even The Celebrant. Frank Deford opines that "it understands the game," which suggests that Deford himself has a rather peculiar understanding of the game. To give a taste of the novel's understanding, I'll briefly lay out the plot, in a couple of paragraphs full of merciless spoilers.

Henry Granville is a Chicago high-school teacher who is determined to make his son Danny into a baseball prodigy. Henry takes a scientific approach, meticulously training Danny to grow up ambidextrous and unbeatable both at the plate and on the mound. Danny grows up to be the greatest baseball prospect in the history of the Universe. He also collects a sweet artistic girlfriend named Bridget. In addition to his merely physical prowess, Danny is also clairvoyant. Whenever he's fixing to hit a batter with a pitch – which would undoubtedly kill the guy, Danny being Danny – our hero hears noises in his head and knows he should walk off the mound. Danny becomes the greatest rookie sensation in the history of the major leagues, routinely throwing no-hitters and, at the All-Star Game, pitching three perfect innings where the batters are retired on plays to pitcher, catcher, first base, on through to right field, in perfect scorecard order 1 through 9. Then one day, Danny is in Macy's at Herald Square and he realizes, thanks to his clairvoyance, that terrorists (upset over this year's parade-balloon selection?) are about to blow the place to smithereens. He saves various folks and the novel ends.

You can probably see both why I kept reading The Man with Two Arms and also why I'm now nonplussed and wish I had those few hours back. One hates to throw the term "WTH" around, but honestly, WTH?

OK, OK, this is a magical-realist novel. I understand that. And there's a long, venerable tradition of magical realism in baseball fiction, from the aforementioned Natural through Shoeless Joe and Things Invisible to See to the more recent Tartabull's Throw. Unbeatable heroes have also been a staple of baseball stories from Frank Merriwell and Baseball Joe through various versions of kids who only hit homers or batted 1.000, to Sidd Finch, and Brendan Fraser in The Scout.

The problem here is that the magic isn't very magical – not enough to offset the dubious lack of realism. The Man with Two Arms is more like evangelical author Jerry Jenkins's novel Rookie, which also features an impossible prodigy who plays for the Chicago Cubs. In Rookie (which at least has the excuse of a religious subtext) the hero starts to excel in the major leagues as a mere child, suggesting that the power of Christ can bring a pennant even to Sheffield Avenue. In The Man with Two Arms Danny Granville shows up, dominates the National League, and starts to have strange visions. The universe of The Man with Two Arms is logical and verisimilar except for our strangely-endowed hero.

The baseball in The Man with Two Arms is meticulously described, down to the third decimal place in everyone's earned-run average. (Everyone knows that baseball fans can't get up in the morning without memorizing all the stats at Baseball-Reference before coffee.) And yet . . . nothing in the book (pace Frank Deford) rings true in the slightest.

To give a small example: Danny Granville is born in the spring of 1984, the son of a Cub fan. His dad spends all summer scheming to take the infant Danny to a game at Wrigley Field. Now, if you remember 1984 (and if you don't, click on B-Ref again), that was an extremely salient year for Cub fans: maybe not quite as soul-crushingly embittering as 1969 or 2003, but way up there. The Cubs breezed to an Eastern Division title, and then stalled out one win away from the National League pennant, as various playoff baseballs eluded infielders and the San Diego Padres came back from the dead to win the championship.

In the world of The Man with Two Arms, though, no specific fact about the 1984 Cubs appears at all. "Henry mostly groaned as the Cubs' [sic] hovered at .500 baseball" (27). Well, yes, that describes a typical Cubs season. But 1984 was highly atypical. The problem is, if you go out of your way (with copious exact dates) to tell us that it's 1984 in Wrigley Field, how can you simply ignore what a significant year it actually was? This is like setting a story at the 1973 Belmont Stakes and having the race won by some 20-1 shot.

Though if that happened, you'd suspect some space/time-continuum-warping weirdness, which would probably be underscored in an alternative-history windup to the story. Nothing of the sort happens in The Man with Two Arms – I mean, nothing remotely resembling actual baseball history or a twist thereon. (For other examples, see James Bailey's review for Baseball America.) These failures suggest three things to me: (1) the author never looked up the 1984 Cubs in the encyclopedias; (2) the author doesn't care about actual baseball; (3) the impressionistic "baseball" portrayed in the narrative is an excuse to grapple with a deeper human drama.

If we accept premise #3, lame but fair enough, then the problem is that the human drama of The Man with Two Arms is doughy, glutinous stuff. Superhero ballplayer beds nubile art teacher. Mom and Dad argue over Dad's pushing son into a stressful career too young. Clairvoyant wrestles with anxiety over his gift and finally uses it to save shoppers from terrorists.

No way! Fortunately I didn't spend money on The Man with Two Arms, and if I return it before next Friday I'll save overdue charges on my library card. I hate to be too harsh on an author's first novel, one that clearly wants to love baseball. (In fact, I'm reacting more to the grossly misleading blurbs on the back of the dust jacket than to the author's earnest and largely well-written attempt to pull off this concept.) But you can see why I regret losing one of the dwindling weekends of summer to such a book.

Lombardo, Billy. The Man with Two Arms. New York: Overlook Press, 2010.