Baseball Books Reviewed: The Man With Two Arms

The Man With Two Arms by Billy Lombardo (Overlook, 335 pg. $24.95). HB, 2010.

Perhaps the greatest compliment a writer can be paid is to have his reader still thinking about his book months after the first reading. That is definitely the case with me and Billy Lombardo's novel, The Man With Two Arms, a sophisticated book with a deceptively simple title. In no other sport would true ambidexterity be so extraordinary (the only one I can think of that might come close is tennis, but the advantage isn’t nearly as pronounced), and it thus identifies Lombardo’s sparkling debut novel as unquestionably a baseball book. But it also establishes a primary theme as well: What is the true worth of athletic prowess, and just how unhealthy is hero worship for both the fan and the hero? After all, a ballplayer, no matter how great, is still just a man, isn’t he?

The novel begins as Henry Granville’s wife Lori gives birth to a son, Danny, and Henry decides with a scientist’s fascination, a baseball fan’s ambition, and a father’s obsessiveness, to raise his boy to be totally, completely, and equally facile with both hands in all things, especially when throwing and hitting a baseball. Danny adheres to his dad’s instructions with complete faith, and as Henry studies his son’s every act and movement, he recognizes that his abilities soon far exceed normal development patterns. He’s creating, in essence, a “Natural,” and it’s both thrilling and exciting.

But superior motor skills may not be the only special talent that Danny’s symmetrical training has developed, as revealed in a riveting scene during a bus crash; and the remainder of the novel examines Danny’s rise to fame as a phenomenon on the mound and at the plate for his hometown Chicago Cubs, how he attempts to cope with the pressures of fame, success, and expectation, and the question of whether there is a higher purpose to his life, a destiny beyond baseball. Even if it’s just to be happy with the woman he adores.

Lombardo’s writing style isn’t as flashy as, say Brendan Boyd’s in Blue Ruin, but it doesn’t have to be. He captures the inner dialog of a father who wants desperately to give his only son the very best possible chance to succeed in the game he so passionately loves. The game descriptions and conversation are both spot on. Characterization is strong, with no cardboard characters to be found, save for Danny’s first professional manager in the minors. (Although, to be fair, a worn out baseball lifer would most likely be gruff and profane.) The author deftly allows Danny’s thoughts, speech, actions, and reactions to grow in sophistication throughout the 20 year span of the story, so that the character and his dilemma are fully realized.

But it’s the story that intrigues the most here, a tale that is useful as a metaphor to examine the role of love, marriage, celebrity, excellence, and destiny in modern America. We’ve got a little Frankenstein, a touch of My Fair Lady, some Roy Hobbs and even a sliver of Barry Bonds. After all, just how much of an advantage can a single player possess before the contest becomes unfair, and the hero becomes the villain? Some have paired Lombardo with W.P. Kinsella for joining baseball and the fantastical, but there are differences here. Kinsella’s characters simply accept the magic and ask or assume the reader will act in kind. In Two Arms, the premise is presented with an almost clinical credibility, as Henry details the experiment and the results. In fact, Henry has created the magic himself. So, when Danny’s otherworldly abilities surface, it’s a surprise, but not an intrusive and ridiculous plot device, and the reader and the character share in the wonder and fear of the discovery.

This is the kind of novel that makes you want to give it to a friend, then tell them to hurry up and read it so you can talk about it. And while every successful novel needs a good story, believable characters, and writing that facilitates and delights, it also needs a satisfying ending, and here’s another instance where Two Arms is so interesting. Because I’m still not sure if I’m happy with Lombardo’s choice, despite the fact that I’m also completely aware of why I’m conflicted. It’s the dichotomy between what I’d want as a baseball fan, and what I’d want for Danny Granville, and the fact that I’m still debating means that Lombardo has created a fictional character that the reader truly cares about, a rare feat indeed.

Much of this novel’s thematic richness can’t be discussed in a book review, simply because this would give all the special secrets away that are so rewarding to discover and contemplate as you turn the last pages. So I have a plan: Read The Man with Two Arms, and let me know what you think.

I’m dying to talk to somebody about this book!

Reviewed by: Mark Schraf (Aug. 2, 2010)