Going the Distance by Michael Joyce. (State University
of New York Press, 236 pg., $24.95). HB, 2013.
If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody’s
around to hear or record it, does it make a sound?
Of course, the answer is
there’s no way to know for sure. However, if a baseball book is published, but
not too many people know about it, does that mean it isn’t very good? This
question we do have a sure answer for, and the journey of Michael Joyce’s challenging
novel, Going the Distance - both into print and into consideration for
this year’s Casey Awards – is as remarkable as his brilliant style.
In his preface, Joyce admits
that the novel has been finished for 26 years (which explains the laudatory but
curious blurb from New York poet and Village
Voice writer Joel Oppenheimer, author of the vastly underrated Mets book The
Wrong Season who has been dead for 25 years) and while published
electronically twice before, it had not appeared in print for various unlucky
circumstances that most writers are all too familiar with: A publishing house
goes belly up just after acceptance. An editor in love with the book leaves the
Happily, fallen trees from
somewhere were eventually turned into the paper that Excelsior Editions, the
SUNY Press imprint that finally published the book, used to present Joyce’s
work in the traditional form that so many of us still cherish so deeply. But
that’s only half the story, because the finest baseball book written in any
given year can only be nominated for the Casey Award if the book makes a
literary sound, if someone actually reads the book and brings it to the
attention of the nominating committee and/or SPITBALL’s editors.
And the story is one of
serendipity at its most exquisite.
On our yearly pilgrimage of
pure baseball pleasure, Mike Shannon drives from his Cincinnati home to mine in
Morgantown, WV, and together we trek the interstates to the foothills of the
Adirondacks in upstate New York to cover the baseball Hall of Fame Induction
ceremonies in Cooperstown. (You may have heard of it.) As we wile away the
hours, filled with baseball literature talk – really, that’s pretty much what
we talk about the entire eight hour drive – we plan upcoming issues of the
magazine, discuss writing projects, and we try to work out a schedule where we
can visit as many used bookshops as we can. Like I said, pure baseball
But circumstances dictated
that this year, instead of heading straight back home after Sunday’s
ceremonies, we headed to Oppenheimer’s stomping grounds, New York City, to pick
up my teenaged daughter from an acting workshop she was attending that week.
Naturally, that required a detour to The Strand, one of the largest new and
used bookshops in the world, a store I’d frequented as often as I could when I
lived a short commuter train trip away in Philadelphia a decade before.
We navigated the traffic,
arrived with about two hours of browsing time, and as Casey Stengel might’ve
said, commenced with browsing. It’s a fabulous place, three large floors
crammed with row after row of dozen-foot high bookcases jammed with books of
every topic imaginable. And while both Mike and I are more and more
hard-pressed to find desired titles absent from our own stuffed shelves,
especially baseball books, we both managed to snag a treasure or two.
With our time almost up, I
was just about finished looking through the fiction stacks when Mike came looking
for me somewhere between the R’s and S’s. As he spied me at the end of the row,
letting me know our meter was soon to expire, he glanced absently at a small
mobile book cart of random titles destined to eventually be reshelved.
There, lying face up on top
of hundreds of books, was Joyce’s novel, a photo of a baseball perched on a
well-worn base prominently featured on the cover, the baseball-phrase title
written in baseball uniform-like script above.
No copy was detected
anywhere else – not in the fiction J’s, or the baseball section – and surely it
would’ve gone unnoticed entirely had it been shoved between a Cajun cookbook
and a Tarot Card self-help primer like it should’ve been, and that cart could
have just as easily been designated for assignment or been in any other part of
the store at any other time that day.
Yet there it was, somehow
calling out and grabbing the attention of one of a select few persons on the
planet who would ever even bother to pick it up. And since – as it turned out –
SUNY Press wasn’t aware of how to get their baseball titles nominated, Going
the Distance would likely have slipped beneath the baseball literature
radar, at least for a Casey consideration.
Which would’ve been a shame
and an injustice, because the sheer power and talent of Joyce’s ambitious
project deserves recognition.
Set in the summer of 1979, Going
the Distance follows the struggles of John “Jack” Flynn, a former major
league pitcher whose career was derailed by an arm injury. He finds himself back in his upstate New York
roots, traveling with a beautiful woman he does not recognize for reasons he
cannot fathom, trying to find the reasons for his memory loss and for direction
in his life.
The story is realistic, and
familiar without becoming hackneyed, but it’s not the story that elevates
Joyce’s novel. This is not a breezy confection, but a dense, engaging, and
poetic psychological journey. Flynn struggles to find meaning and
understanding, and Joyce expertly draws the reader into that struggle with
sometimes jarring juxtaposition of setting, voice, and time. The genius is his
ability to confuse initially, but not so much as to frustrate. It takes a
sentence or two to realize things have changed, and another sentence or two to
recognize and reorient to the passage’s surroundings. It’s a brilliant gambit
that, in a lesser craftsman’s hands, could easily lead to a disastrous loss of
continuity, and the reader’s trust and attention. Instead, this
metafiction-like method heightens the mystery and the reader’s involvement in
the characters and plot.
And the baseball is simply
There’s a hilarious old
scout who has a germ phobia, and a young girl who reads Flynn’s baseball cards
like they are a Tarot deck, a wonderful examination of hero worship and coming-of-age
confusion. We meet a former hard-hitting teammate and foe, who faced Flynn in a
disastrous confrontation. But mostly, we learn about the life of a very good
pitcher whose life was filled with devastating personal trauma and loss, and one of the most
spectacular sections of the novel describes the sheer agony Flynn endured while
pitching with a shoulder injury:
“…like part of you
has died away. For the last few years it had been that way with every start.
For the first inning or so it was as if something caught there, a great hump of
bone, a knobby scar of muscle. It was a grinding ache, deep, not something
present. You could feel it release with the pitch, literally feel the muscle
mass begin to warm with the blood flow, the ache receding but never
disappearing, gone like a boat to the horizon of a lake…The numbness spread
from the shoulders and forearms both, a radiating, gentle pain meeting at the
elbow and bicep, occasionally surprising you with jolts of electrical shock you
felt in the bone like thin hot wires…Then, when you had learned again to ignore
the oncoming numbness, the bone chips would start to ache, the pain gradually
piercing the dull throb of the elbow joint, until you could locate them exactly
as an x-ray in your consciousness. You were sure you could cut them out if you
could somehow get in there, operating on yourself as if opening clams with a
knife, picking out the stones, flipping them off with the spring tip of the
One looks at a picture of
Sandy Koufax’s face throwing a pitch in his last few years with the Dodgers,
and Joyce’s superb narrative captures the excruciating pain perfectly.
Winding toward the novel’s
conclusion, I fretted that – like a no-hitter – Joyce might not finish strong
enough, that the journey might be spoiled by an unsatisfactory, trite,
unfulfilling end. Not to worry, since the story wraps with just the right feel,
the mysteries gently revealed with haiku-like subtlety.
It might not have been an
easy trip to paper publication, nor a smooth ride to discovery, and there’s no
doubt that this novel requires a dedicated, involved, and studied read to be
appreciated, but Joyce has crafted a truly inventive, fabulously written work
of fiction, and Going the Distance belongs on any list of upper-echelon
Hey, nobody said it was
always gonna be easy.