Baseball Books Reviewed: Going the Distance

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 business entirely.

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 pleasure.

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 absolutely authentic.

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 blade.”

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 baseball novels.

Hey, nobody said it was always gonna be easy.