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edge staff writer


The crack of the bat - ‘Gods of Wood and Stone’

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Baseball as a metaphor has been a literary device since the game’s inception. It has proven fertile ground for stories of fathers and sons, of passion and regret, of failure and triumph.

Mark Di Ionno is the latest to bring our national pastime to the printed page with his novel “Gods of Wood and Stone” (Touchstone, $26). Now, this book isn’t ABOUT baseball – not really. It’s more that it is built AROUND baseball, using the game as a lens to focus the narrative. And what a narrative it is, a story of relationships and disappointments, about the regrets that haunt us and the damage caused by the decisions we make. It’s a tale of loneliness and obsessions and the power of passion.

Joe Grudeck is a baseball legend. He’s an all-time great, a catcher who starred for the Boston Red Sox for some two decades. Five years have passed since his retirement from the game, which means that it’s time for Cooperstown to come calling. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And yet … something is missing. There’s an emptiness to it all, stemming from a dark incident in his past that forever altered the way he moved through the world.

Horace Mueller is a blacksmith. Yes, a blacksmith; he’s a reenactor for the Farm Museum there in Cooperstown. He’s also a historical scholar specializing in the breakdown between rural and industrial communities and that breakdown’s impact on the culture at large. He’s fully engulfed by his anachronistic lifestyle; he clings to romanticized notions of what once was and decries the here-and-now, much to the detriment of his relationship with his wife and son.

For both men, baseball is an overwhelming presence. For Joe, it’s the thing that consumed him for most of his life. It has given him wealth and fame, but despite all that, he finds himself looking in from the outside on his own life. There is nothing and no one real in his life – just empty glad-handing with fans and one-night stands with groupies. For Horace, it’s the signifier of all that’s wrong in his life. Not only is his town dominated by the game, but his job is overshadowed by it. Plus, his son is proving to be something of a prodigy – one whose skills might result in him leaving to become part of the very youth sports machine that Horace despises.

Circumstances set these men onto a collision course; their paths are destined to cross. However, the men that meet at that juncture of the journey are not the same men that began it. Changes – big changes, for good and ill – are coming. All that remains is to see how things play out.

Again, one hesitates to call “Gods of Wood and Stone” a baseball novel, despite the sport’s prominence within its pages, because one worries about potentially damning the work with genre expectations. This is MORE than a baseball book. It’s a baseball book in the same way that something like “The Natural” is a baseball book, the way that a book like “The Art of Fielding” or “The Great American Novel” or “Field of Dreams” is a baseball book.

Granted, “Gods of Wood and Stone” is as different from those examples as they are different from one another, but the point stands. Baseball is used to serve the story rather than be the story; it’s a relatively fine distinction, but one that makes all the difference.

Di Ionno has captured something basic and raw in these pages, an exploration of the fragility inherent to us all – men in particular. It’s a deeper look at this notion of allowing one’s sense of identity to become too entangled with something separate from oneself and the consequences that come when that something is threatened or removed. It’s a look at the different kinds of emotional gaps that new generations attempt to fill in different ways. It’s about clinging to a past that is never coming back and refusing to move forward in any meaningful way.

Joe and Horace are as compelling a pair of protagonists as you’re likely to find; they’re wildly different on a surface level, but the deeper we dig, the more similar they are. Each man exudes his own form of coarse charisma, a baseline confidence that can nevertheless devolve into defensiveness at the drop of a hat.

Narrative, characterization, dialogue – “Gods of Wood and Stone” is outstanding in every respect. It is thematically complex and emotionally challenging, a compelling as hell story with thoughtful ideas that just happens to be exquisitely readable. It won’t hurt if you’re a baseball fan, but you absolutely do not need to be. It’s just plain great.

If I were inclined to clichés, I’d call it a home run. Instead, I’ll call it exceptional.

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 July 2018 14:19


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