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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Les MIserables: Volume One, "Fantine"

Les Miserables: Volume One, “Fantine”

Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of life in early nineteenth century France is an amazing displaying of authorial command and the mastery of plot. Despite its overwhelming length each detail given to the reader has its place in the overall narrative and their inclusion is the furthest thing from arbitrary. The novel’s all-encompassing style makes the revelations of the key elements of the plot all the more rewarding and affecting.

Volume One (out of Five) begins with an examination of the life of Charles Myriel, later the Bishop of Digne. In painstaking fashion, Hugo describes the manner in which this comfortable heir turned to the life of the cloth, and how, unlike so many others in that estate, he truly came to devote himself to the poor and needy. Acquiring the nickname Monsignor Welcome for his charity, Myriel’s status as a living saint only becomes credible through the avalanche of evidence Hugo provides in support of it. Having spent chapter upon chapter witness the incredible deeds of Monsignor Welcome, it is thus readily acceptable to the reader that this man would save Jean Valjean from returning to the galleys, despite Valjean having just robbed the bishop’s residence.

Jean Valjean had arrived at the bishop’s after being rejected by every inn along the road to Digne. When Hugo first introduces him Valjean is dressed in rags, tired from walking and exceedingly hungry. He is a freed convict, carrying a yellow passport which marks him as such. Having stolen a loaf of bread to feed him, his sister, and her seven young children, Valjean was sentenced to five years in the galleys. With years added to his sentence for escape attempts, Valjean spent nineteen years in prison. The experience had caused him to have contempt for all humanity, but the actions of the bishop cause him to rethink his stance. After committing a minor crime, robbing a small child of a forty franc piece out of habit, Valjean confronts the blackness of his soul and returns to the bishop determined to better himself.

Valjean is the main character of the novel, but Hugo’s storytelling makes room for plenty of other characters to have their turn in the spotlight. This volume is entitled “Fantine” after an unfortunate women who later makes Valjean’s acquaintance, but in order to feel her devastation more keenly, Hugo treats us to a long segment of her in her happiness, attached to a philosophical man of leisure named Felix Tholomyes. Felix and his friends have formed a little social circle, and Fantine’s friends are comprised of their girlfriends. One day, Felix and his pals gather the women for a “surprise”. After much drunken speechifying and suspense, the men cruelly abandon their girlfriends en masse. The length of this cruel joke and its perversity are compounded when Hugo reveals that Fantine had succumbed to Felix and was carrying his child.

Fantine names her daughter Cosette, but is too poor to continue to raise her. She departs Paris for her home of M. sur M. and leaves Cosette with the Thernadiers, married innkeepers with two young children of their own, and promises to send them money for Cosette when she finds work. Unfortunately, the Thernadiers turn out to be liars and crooks who use Fantine’s money for their own children and treat Cosette as a slave, putting her to work as soon as she can walk, and denying her even the most basic needs. Fantine has no idea that this is going on.

Fantine’s employment comes at the factory of the benefactor of M. sur M., a mysterious stranger known as M. Madeleine, or Monsieur le Maire. After arriving in the town, the newcomer made a proposal to make the local industry more efficient, and in doing so made himself a wealthy man. Despite his riches, M. Madeleine is almost universally beloved in the little town for his benevolence. Only a suspicious few, including the officious policeman Javert, remain unconvinced of M. Madeleine’s worthiness.

Though it is, intentionally, fairly obvious from his introduction that this M. Madeleine is none other than Jean Valjean, Hugo playfully draws out the revelation, building up to it by introducing us to Javert and explaining the nature of his suspicions. Along the way Hugo also describes how Fantine has been degraded in the town because of the incessant curiosity and gossip surrounding her. When Fantine, Javert and Valjean are pushed together by Fantine’s arrest, the reader is thrilled by these characters, so dramatically isolated until now, coming into contact with one another.

To say much more would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that Hugo’s story ingeniously places Valjean in a moral crisis that is heart-breaking to read of. Valjean’s struggle, Fantine’s innocence corrupted, and Valjean’s obstinate adherence to the letter of the law come together to devastate the reader.

All that, and we’re only a fifth of the way through.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Newsroom: "Bullies"

There is a flaw in the conception of The Newsroom that I fear will make it very difficult for the show to attain its full potential. The show is clearly crafted so to make the characters heroes for their integrity and their commitment to getting things right, but in order to create drama, they have to fail or at least come up short in their efforts. That in turn leads to them seeming incapable of doing the jobs they are supposed to, which undercuts the whole idea of them being the best at what they do.

The amount of unmitigated stupidity displayed by the main characters in last night’s episode is startling. That anyone could write such things and still expect us to respect these characters is even more so. The most galling part is that so many of these mistakes, these stupid errors in fact and of judgment, are patently contrived and unnecessary.

Take Maggie, please. It’s easy enough to believe that someone would have filed a complaint with HR on her behalf, but the explanation for it is grossly unfair to her character. We’re supposed to believe that a twenty-something who was able to get a job at a highly-rated news station doesn’t know that Georgia is a country? We’re supposed to give credence to the idea that someone in her age bracket, in the 21st century, still doesn’t know what “LOL” stands for?

Stupid little things like this serve only to pull the viewer out of the narrative and cause him or her to spend the rest of the hour picking apart what the show is trying to do. Then when the show asks us to make a bigger leap, like believing that Sloan Sabbith wouldn’t know or care that she can’t reveal off-the-record information on the air, it becomes impossible for us to go along with the show.

Perhaps the biggest leap the show is asking us to make is also one that I am increasingly finding difficult to get on board with. The idea that Will McAvoy is some kind of living saint worthy only of admiration and awe is absolutely preposterous. As written, McAvoy is a control freak with anger issues who is dastardly manipulating Mackenzie into still feeling bad for something that happened four years ago. The show keeps telling us how special he is, how brilliant he is, and how good he is at his job, but there is a significant gap between what we are being told and what we are being shown.

The best scene in “Bullies” is one in which McAvoy gets some well-deserved comeuppance from an aide to Rick Santorum who happens to be gay and black. McAvoy pushes and pokes the aide trying to get him to condemn Santorum’s positions on civil rights for gays and lesbians, but when he pushes too hard the aide denounces his pandering condescension in an impassioned speech about his right to decide for himself what is important to him. It’s a great moment and one of the few times the show has allowed McAvoy’s real character to display itself instead of insisting on some impossible paragon of virtue.

At the periphery, there were a few other nice things going on in “Bullies”. I like Terry Crews as the bodyguard, and his repartee with the staff was rather lighthearted fun, of the type this show could use a lot more of. Dave Krumholtz was fine as McAvoy’s psychiatrist, although the framing device is a little overwrought. Olivia Munn did a great job with some problematic material, and her confrontation with Charlie was especially good.

Next week looks like the Bin Laden killing episode, which has the potential to be an absolute self-aggrandizing trainwreck. Let’s hope they avoid that.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

This Year's (Really, Really) Big August Novel

I like to read a lot of novels. Sometimes, in order to further my goal of being well-read, I will choose to read several short novels instead of taking the time to commit to a lengthier work of greatness. This is a failing, and I recognize that. To make amends, every August I resolve to tackle a giant novel of great length and importance. The tradition began in earnest the summer after I graduated from college, when I would spend a part of every day without employment engrossed in the story of David Copperfield. Over the last few years, I’ve read other Dickens novels and last year I tackled Thomas Pynchon with rather disappointing results.

We’re nearing August, but I have already got a head start on this year’s Big August Novel, because I wasn’t sure I could get it done in just one month. This year I’ve really picked a doozy.

I’ll be reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a classic French novel with a vast cast of characters and a generation spanning story. The unabridged English translation runs about 1500 pages. Luckily, I have downloaded it on my Kindle, making it much easier to read on the train to work.

Kindle doesn’t give you the page number, but right now it tells me I’m 12% of the way through, or about 180 pages. It’s an interesting novel, although it’s hard not to get impatient at some of Hugo’s digressions.

I may post updates on my reading as the month goes on, but otherwise it’ll be a while before you can expect to read a book review on this site.

Friends With Kids

If you can get over the urge to smack Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt upside their heads and yell, “Get together already!” then Friends With Kids is actually a lively, original, low-stakes comedy with a fresh voice and some trenchant observations about what it takes to make a family work. Of course, if you can’t help but find the wait for the big epiphanic “we should be a couple” moment tedious, then it might be hard to appreciate the film’s modest charms.

Jason and Jules are privileged Manhattanites of the age where their friends are having kids, moving to Brooklyn, and walling themselves off from the single life. And as single people in movies are wont to do, they think they can do better. They hatch a plan to have and raise a baby together without any romantic commitment to each other.

Even though no one knows anyone who would do such a thing, the film largely manages to sell this device, especially through the incredulity with which the idea is received by the strong supporting cast. The two couples which comprise their friends are played by a Bridesmaids’ reunion quartet of Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O’Dowd.

The film kicks into gear when Jason and Jules re-enter the dating world, he with a young dancer played by Megan Fox, she with a divorced father played by Edward Burns. Here the film occasionally devolves into the kind of dispiriting series of contrivances that keep “perfect” couples apart in much less pretentious rom-coms.

Still, the acting here is top notch, and several set-pieces showcase the strength of Westfeldt’s script. A group dinner at a ski lodge turns into a nasty, personal fight when a few drinks loosen tongues and real feelings pour out. Hamm in particular is wonderful, as his willingness to play the heel serves the film well. (There will be no carping that he only got the film because he is sleeping with the director.)

As for the lead pair, it’s possible I’m just too predisposed to like Adam Scott to find his behavior in the movie believable. Jennifer Westfeldt’s line-readings show that she has a great grasp of who this character is (as she should, having written it) but her facial expressions are often comically frozen and disconnected from her character’s emotions. I suspect she has had a few plastic surgeries too many.

Still, Friends With Kids is full of likable performers bouncing off of one another enjoyably, a fact which serves as the spoonful of sugar for its admittedly hard-to-swallow premise.

Ruby Sparks

The script for this high-concept romantic comedy, written by Zoe Kazan (who also stars as the female lead), offers a penetrating look at the ugly side of romantic love.

Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weirs-Field, a genius (though he bristles at the term) whose first novel made him a literary sensation at the age of 19. In the decade since he has been unable to finish a second novel and is becoming an emotional wreck, having seemingly only his agent, his brother a therapist, and his dog for companionship. Spurred on by an assignment given by his therapist, Paul begins imagining a young woman who might like him. He dreams of her, gives her a name and a personality, and begins writing her story. Soon this girl, Ruby Sparks, begins to seem real to him.

Sure enough, one morning Ruby shows up in his kitchen, cooking him breakfast and looking cute as a button. Because Calvin is one of those sad young literary men, Ruby is an artistic woman with joie de vivre to spare and enough endearing personality quirks to make Zooey Deschanel look positively strait-laced by comparison. And of course, despite her considerable charms, she has nothing better to do than inspire Calvin.

Or does she? After a brief period of bliss, Kazan’s script starts to turn against Calvin, showing how even his own creation can’t live up to his image of her. Sometimes Calvin doesn’t feel like living in an indie movie, like when he’s visiting his suddenly new-age mother and her woodworker second husband whom Calvin still resents. And sometimes, even the girl of your dreams has a headache and wants to go to bed early.

From there it only gets darker, and as an increasingly desperate Calvin struggles to modulate Ruby to match his desires, his creation gets further and further from what he wants. It leads to a frightening confrontation and an examination of just how dark the desire in Calvin’s heart is.

Unfortunately, though the production codes went out a long time ago, there seems to be a codicil still in effect that no movie billed as a romantic comedy can end on a dark note, so we’re treated to a largely uninteresting coda in which Calvin learns his lessons and gets a second chance that most of the preceding film will convince you he doesn’t deserve.

Kazan’s script is a clever deconstruction of the quirky-girl male fantasy which loses steam as it belabors its essential point.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Newsroom: "Amen"

In its handful of episodes to date, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has committed every sin, narrative and otherwise, imaginable. The show has been criticized and in some quarters pilloried as sexist, naïve, revisionist, biased, reductive, unrealistic, obnoxious, and crass. In many instances I agreed with these criticisms while in others I thought reviewers were being too demanding, expecting the greatness of mid-run The West Wing without any of the traditional flaws of early-run episodes. However, last night’s episode committed a new sin, on that I find harder to forgive: it was boring.

The episode covers two non-related but simultaneous historical events, the protests in Tarir Square and the union protests against Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, although the latter story is barely covered, probably leaving it to a later day, when the Koch brothers involvement will be a battleground between Will and Leona.

Will’s protégé Elliott is covering the riots from the relative safety of his hotel room, leaving NewsNight without the raw footage it craves. But Elliott the news man’s effort to get out in the streets is rewarded with a rock to the head, a broken arm and a few broken ribs. Luckily, the serious nature of this story is largely shoved aside so that we can get to Maggie hitting Jim with a glass door (twice!) and Don and Neal can each injure themselves in improbable fashion, all so Will can have more ammunition for his “real journalists” speech to Nina Howard.

The rest of the episode largely concerns itself with the fallout from Wade’s decision to run for Congress, opening up Mac to ethics inquiries, even from her own network, and to the quest to get ACN’s Egyptian stringer ransomed from his kidnapper. Both problems can be solved by Will’s checkbook, but in one instance the payoff is ethical and the other is not, so of course perfect man Will McAvoy only writes one check.

Let’s breakdown this week’s episode in terms of the Inspiring vs. the Infuriating:

Inspiring: Neal’s London bombing story. Sloan’s tutorial on Glass-Steagall? Not a whole lot here this week.

Infuriating: Mackenzie can’t do math! Mackenzie didn’t understand This Old House! Mackenzie doesn’t know a thing about economics! Even when Mackenzie tries to learn about economics, she can’t keep her mind off her boy problems! Lisa the fashion chick loves Valentine’s Day and hates being stood up! Will’s love of Rudy is predicated on the cheesiest, most made-up scene in the film, and then the recreation of it in the office gets the dynamics all wrong!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The most disappointing thing about The Dark Knight Rises is how similar it is to every other superhero movie out there, including the first film of this trilogy, Batman Begins. This film’s immediate predecessor, The Dark Knight, was a departure from the formulaic sameness of the summer blockbuster playbook, and a huge step up from the initial offering. In The Dark Knight, the terrors caused by a psychotic madman known as the Joker served as an only slightly implausible allegory for the very real evils that man is faced with. However, The Dark Knight Rises serves up as its antagonists an unbelievable and frankly ridiculous army of super-soldiers lead by a cartoonish bad guy with no connection to anything in the real world.

The film’s numerous problems begin with Bane. He is a super-strong mercenary with an obscure breathing problem requiring him to wear a mask that alters his voice. He has a loyal following despite being kicked out of the League of Shadows, an organization that has not gotten any less implausible since the time of Batman Begins.

Look, I know what I’m complaining about sounds stupid: I don’t think a comic book movie is realistic enough. But that in and of itself would not be the problem, except that with The Dark Knight it felt like Christopher Nolan had intentionally placed his movies in a higher plane. “Rises” thus feels like a regression into the realm of just like every other superhero flick.

Even in comparison to the better escapist movies of the superhero genre, The Dark Knight Rises suffers. The cast is large enough that even with almost three hours in running time there is not enough screen to go around. Gary Oldman is barely in this movie, and precious time is wasted on Matthew Modine’s character. Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard are lovely to look at, and both are damn good actresses, but neither is given the kind of character that they can really sink their teeth into. The best actor in the movie might be Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose turn as a crusading Gotham police officer is the most grounded thing in the film by far.

Bane’s absurdly convoluted plan is reminiscent of the very worst aspects of the Bond villains. Batman’s redemption is cheap and unearned, as well as over-reliant on Zen mystical claptrap. The film’s conclusion is surprisingly tidy. At no point does the film ever really take Bane or his threat seriously, leaving precious little reason for the audience to do so.

In short The Dark Knight Rises is a massive disappointment, as Nolan has retreated from the heights of The Dark Knight to the safety of the popcorn business.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On Statues and their Meaning

Symbols are important. This is what we are told when we are told that our fighting men and women are doing so for the flag of the United States. A symbol can come to represent the Platonic ideal of a thing and serve as a lasting testament to its worthiness. When we turn something into a symbol we announce publicly that the ideals it represents are ones we aspire to. When the basis for the symbol changes, so too does the symbol itself change.

The statue of Joe Paterno outside the football stadium at Penn State was erected to eternalize the admirable qualities that his fans and admirers presumed their beloved JoePa to possess. Based on the available evidence they fairly reasonably concluded that he was a decent man with a legendary commitment to the school and the men he coached. He seemed like a breath of fresh air in the world of collegiate athletics, determined to have his players stay out of trouble and graduate, and for decades that is exactly what they did, with hardly a whiff of corruption to be smelled.

But now, of course, we know that the reputation of Joe Paterno was based on a rotten foundation. His commitment to the school and its football program was not the selfless act it was portrayed as, but rather the propagation of a relentless need for self-glorification that fed itself on the adoration of the Penn State community. Joe Paterno turned himself into a living legend, and when something threatened to poke a hole in his armor, rather than live up to the legend and do the right thing no matter what, damn the consequences to his legacy, Paterno looked the other way, and perhaps even helped convince others to do the same.

Next to that what, really, do all the victories and graduations matter? However much those victories, that program, mattered to the community, how can Joe Paterno represent anything honorable from this point forward?

The statue of Joe Paterno is no longer a symbol for the commitment to doing things the right way and achieving victory and honor. It is a symbol for the dysfunctional and disordered thinking that led to a football coach becoming bigger than the school itself, and led directly to that coach doing everything he could to protect that status, even if it meant delaying justice for child rape victims and even allowing more children to be victimized.

The tragedy of what happened at Penn State should, one would think, have been enough to wake up the people of that community and get them to reassess their priorities. And perhaps for many it has. But a dismayingly large and vocal percentage of the community are sticking to their guns, making excuses, or minimizing the impact this scandal has on their beloved institutions.

One might reasonably have expected that, outraged by the malfeasance of the men they had so entrusted, the students at Penn State might have rallied to demand that the statue of Joe Paterno be taken down. Perhaps one might have expected that some enterprising and industrious students would attempt to perform this task themselves.

Instead what has happened is that committed Paterno loyalists, blinded by years of following the party line on the coach, are forming a vigil to ensure that the statue remains unharmed. It’s a pointless task, and self-defeating. By standing by the statue, and the man it represents, they are serving only to further establish the connection that all outsiders will hereafter make when they see Paterno’s statue: Here is a place whose priorities are all fucked up.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Newsroom: "I'll Try to Fix You"

All drama is manipulative to some extent, but the question posed by last night’s The Newsroom is whether real-life tragedy can and should be used to create relatively minor drama in the lives of fictional characters. In other words, was it out of bounds for Aaron Sorkin to use the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, and her unlikely and inspiring survival, as a way to pit Will and his staff against their corporate overlords?

It’s a debatable point, but such usage was perhaps inevitable right from the point it was revealed that the pilot episode was taking place on the day of the BP oil spill. The Newsroom is going to continue to use historical fact to inspire its fictional drama, and that is going to result in some tension. If nothing else, this might show the wisdom of setting the West Wing is basically an alternate timeline occurring somewhere around the Nixon resignation.

I found the sequence of events starting with the news bulletin to be moving, but maybe I’m just that easy. Sure, it lends more ammo to those who critique the show for its perfect foresight-as-hindsight, but knowing that Giffords survived the assassin’s bullet, and that Will and Mac and the others were right to wait on reporting her death, lead to a swell of emotion when the truth came out. The Newsroom continues to be at its best when its characters are at their best: at work, getting the story.

For the moment, the on-air stuff seems to be just about one-third of the show, where the other two-thirds are split between the threat to Will and the show’s new direction posed by Leona Langley and her son, and the personal lives and romantic entanglements of the main characters. The former is becoming more and more promising, as Charlie’s realization of the lengths the company is willing to go to get Will in line is a fine moment, and sets the stage for many more like it.

The relationship stuff, however, feels like it belongs on a different show, perhaps one that even reality TV fans would like. This week, Will lashes out at Mac for moving on, Charlie tells Will to make a run at Mac instead of sleeping around, and Mac still feels bad for how she treated Will. Meanwhile, Don wants to get rid of the competition by setting up Jim with Maggie’s fashionista roommate Lisa, who despite even thinking herself too dumb for Jim winds up sleeping with him. Jim lies about this to Maggie, but Don knows the truth and rubs it in Maggie’s face, causing her to make the private public in a horrifically unprofessional manner during a staff meeting.

Ok, I’m out of breath. It strikes me as really funny that Sorkin rails against the manufactured drama of reality TV (a point I’m entirely sympathetic to) but can only generate personal drama between his characters in the most heavy-handed ways imaginable.

Still, there is a lot to be entertained by, and I’m enjoying this re-imagined version of the recent past enough to keep going along for the ride.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Joe Paterno and the Dangers of False Idols

Sometimes, there is no context.

Mark Antony was being facetious when he claimed that he came “to bury Caesar, not to praise him” but the truth in his subsequent statement, that “the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones” is readily apparent. In some cases, our society’s tendency to remember only the bad, to allow the fleeting or momentary mistake to outweigh and overwhelm a lifetime of better deeds, is improper. But this is not the case when it comes to Joe Paterno.

For at least a dozen years, the man who lived as one of the most widely beloved and respected public figures in America harbored a horrible secret: that he had participated in covering up allegations of heinous behavior by his assistant coach and friend Jerry Sandusky. He even helped arrange for a nice retirement package, emeritus status and free run on university property, allowing Sandusky to continue to rape children on the premises of the place that Paterno had come to define.

A lot of people so admired Joe Paterno that these revelations seem impossible. So much so that they are either refusing to believe them or otherwise couching their outrage in terms that make it clear they have yet to accept the truth of the matter. Several PSU students are quoted in today’s New York Times as saying things along the line of “I wish he had done more.” The Paterno family expressed regret only that he didn’t “push his superiors” to do more. As though anyone in Happy Valley could truly have been superior to Paterno.

Nearly as infuriating as those people who seem to want to separate Paterno into two separate persons. These people talk about “the stain on his legacy” or the “black mark overwhelming all the good he accomplished.”

What they are attempting to do is to put the reprehensible scandal, and its sickening coverup, into a proper context. They are talking about how tragic it is that Paterno will only be remembered for this last part of his life, instead of as a great football coach.

Bullshit. Paterno can, should, and hopefully will only be remembered as the person so concerned with preserving his legacy that he turned a blind eye to the raping of children. Ex-players and fans who adored him will talk about how much he taught them, how he inspired them, and so on, but really, what do they amount to in comparison with this? So what if a few linebackers owe him their careers?

What has finally been established beyond dispute is that, no matter what else he may have done, Joe Paterno was the kind of guy who would allow a cult to develop around himself, and when that was put into jeopardy, the kind of guy who would do anything to preserve it. Everything about Joe Paterno, from the condescending manner in which he discussed running a program the right way to the way he tried to remain lovable by joking about his old-age and being out of touch with technology, was all about remaining the figure he had become through longevity and success.

In the last years of his tenure, it was something of a joke among college football fans how obvious it was that Paterno wasn’t really coaching the team. He was on the sidelines, but he wasn’t wearing headphones, and it wasn’t apparent that he was doing anything other than standing there, serving as a living monument to his own greatness. It was clear that the people in charge were subservient to his will, that if he wanted he could and would die before resigning.

In my opinion, whenever it came to their attention that Sandusky was a pedophile, the people in charge at Penn State just continued doing what they had always done: they turned their thoughts to Paterno and how it would affect him. They made a conscious decision, which the Freeh report established he was involved with and agreed to, to keep Sandusky’s behavior from becoming public so as not to damage Joe Paterno’s reputation. They had followed in a long line of alums, trustees, and fans in so connecting the coach with the institution itself that they knew that if the man were tarnished the school would be too, inextricably.

Joe Paterno was a false god, and they worshipped him as much as he worshipped himself. That’s the way they justified behavior that surely all of them knew would be rightly considered abhorrent when viewed from the outside.

There is no way that Penn State can ever be the same after this, nor should it. I can’t believe this point will be contentious, but it will be: the football program must be suspended, if not disbanded. Football can play no part in whatever process of recovery is about to commence. The disordered reverence for the sport and its practitioners is what allowed this rotting wound to fester in the very soul of the university. Everyone who supported the program and Paterno must take a look at themselves and examine whether they have truly got things in the right perspective. Allowing things to get back to normal is not what is called for. Football will not help heal anyone, but rather allow them to go back to making the same errors that have lead to this tragedy.

All of us could stand for such a personal examination. After all, the worship for Paterno is not dissimilar to that for any number of coaches or other public figures. When we make a man into a god we forget that men can do wrong. Let us look around us for the false gods, and remind ourselves that they are men, maybe even great men, but nothing more.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Knuckler

I was a weird kid.

Being a weird kid, I didn’t really enjoy summer vacations. I’m not saying I loved school, but I was good at it. School provided at least some reassurance that I had talents and abilities, and it provided the illusion of a social life. Even if I had little going on in my own life, there was so much activity surrounding me it was easy to pretend I was a part of it.

Summers were different. There were so many days where there was just nothing going on, or at least nothing going on for me. Sometimes there’d be a pickup baseball game to play in, or I could convince Greg Annan to play tennis, but a lot of days people were off doing their own things. People went on vacation, went to camp, were hanging out with their cooler friends, what have you.

As for my family, I was the weird one there too. They did a lot of summery things that I wasn’t really keen on. They spent seemingly every day at the beach or at Six Flags or going to swim in my aunt’s pool. I hate the beach, can’t stand amusement parks (I’m terrified of roller coasters) and I never really felt like going over to my aunt’s. My nana lived downstairs in my basement, which meant there was just enough adult supervision for my parents to feel comfortable leaving me alone in the house. They’d leave some money by the phone before they left in case they were late coming back and I needed to call and order food for Nana and me.

Some days I would be so bored I felt like I would go out of my mind. There’s really nothing on television during the day. Sometimes I would even sit and listen to Mike and the Mad Dog on the radio.

I had this pitch-back contraption set up in my backyard. It was a black metal frame with a high-tension net strung on it, and in the middle there was a rectangle outlined in white tape to represent the typical strike zone for a man of average height. When I’d given up on the idea that one of my friends might call to say there was a ball game that day, I’d take my glove, a ball, and my portable radio (for Mike and the Mad Dog) out to the backyard and play catch with myself.

Yes, that’s right. I was such a lonely child that I would spend an hour or two just throwing a ball at a net and trying to catch the ball when it bounced back to me. If I threw too low the ball would sail over my head and roll under the hedges by the neighbor’s yard. Too high and it might be a slow grounder that rolled to a halt well before my position. Hit the frame, or worse, miss the thing altogether, and I’d have to go running after the ball like an idiot.

The summer after seventh grade was right around the time I was becoming certain that I had no future whatsoever in athletics. That year in Little League I had hit for an average of .059, which represent one hit in seventeen at-bats. My on-base percentage was considerably higher, since a reluctance to swing, combined with the unreliability of twelve-year-old pitching, meant I walked more than you might expect. I also wasn’t all that afraid of being hit with the ball anymore, and reached base that way a number of times. My teammates didn’t really appreciate this, though. I was so slow on the base-paths that I think they’d have rather had me strike out. Batting last in the order, I often preceded the lead-off hitter, our best player and the coach’s son. Quite often I would be on first when he crushed one to the farthest reaches of the outfield, only to be limited to a single or maybe a double because of my sluggishness.

The problem at the plate was that my eyesight is not very strong, even with the assistance of glasses. Often I would not play with my glasses, because I was preternaturally concerned with a fastball breaking them and sending shards into my eyeballs. So instead I would flail, nearly blindly, at pitches as they sailed somewhere in the vicinity of the strike zone.

During the season I was determined to try my hand at pitching. I thought it might be a better way to contribute to the team’s success. There was no reason for me to feel this way, except that I had to better at it than I was at hitting. So I talked the coach into letting me practice pitching, and eventually he promised that he would use me on the mound at some point.

I got my shot in a game against the Orioles which we were losing by about 15 runs. I was facing the heart of the order, which included two of my friends from school. Jimmy Ascolese and Jon Harrison were two of the tallest kids in school, and the most athletic. During the warm up pitches the Orioles were openly laughing at how slow I was throwing. But when Jimmy stepped up to the plate he swung too hard at the first pitch and missed it badly. The next few pitches he fouled off, but then I threw one even slower (not intentionally, I was tiring quickly) and he swung too hard again and struck out. Jon did just about the same thing, and third kid popped out to first base. I was ecstatic, but my coach wasn’t. He told me that once the other team timed it right they’d slaughter me.

So that summer I was facing the end of my career in baseball. I couldn’t hit, couldn’t run, and couldn’t throw hard enough to make it as a pitcher. But I knew enough of baseball to know that there was one avenue left. I had just one chance left, one last potential path to athletic glory: the knuckleball.

The knuckleball is a curiosity more than anything else. It has a bad reputation. The ball is gripped by the fingernails, actually, and thrown with a motion similar to that or someone tossing a paper airplane. The point of this is to get the ball to travel with as little rotation as possible. For whatever reason, (something to do with the motion of air around the seams) this lack of spin causes the baseball to travel in a disjointed, jumpy path from mound to home plate. The batter can’t tell where the ball is going to go, and thus has trouble making contact with it. On the other hand, the pitcher and catcher often don’t know where it will go either, making walks, passed balls and wild pitches more prevalent.

Anyway, knuckleball pitchers are a more random collection of men than the rest of baseball. Since it has less to do with brute strength, many were not in particularly good shape. Indeed a lot of them resembled darts champions rather than professional athletes. So I thought maybe I could join their fraternity.

So instead of my normal games of catch, I turned my sessions with the pitch-back into a simulated game. I was on the mound, throwing nothing but knuckleballs, and the batter never swung. If I hit the strike zone, he’d be out, if I didn’t, he’d walk. I wasn’t keeping score or keeping track of my statistics, and thank goodness for that. The results would have been distressing.

One of the first adaptations I made to my routine was to bring more than one baseball outside with me every day. Otherwise I’d spend too much of my time chasing after the ones that completely missed the frame. So I’d bring out five or six balls and scatter them about on the ground near my feet. When I sent one sailing over the bar or way off to one side or the other, I’d just scoop down and pick myself a new one. Until, of course, they would all be on the other side of the frame, and I’d have to go and collect them all, like herding disobedient sheep.

The ones that did hit the frame tended to sink toward the end of their flight and just nick the netting on their way to the ground. They hit with such little velocity that they just took a dead-cat bounce and rolled a bit, making them little better than the ones that missed entirely. Still, I had nothing better to do, and I was determined to take this seriously. I loved baseball, and I was going to give every last shot.

The whole time the radio was on. Baseball was the only sport in action, and the Yankees and Mets dominated the conversation, which was just fine with me. The Yankees were having one of the best seasons in baseball history, and since there the media respond more to conflict, Mike and the Mad Dog would talk a lot more about the Mets, who were frustratingly close to actually contending for the first time that decade. When they won, the hosts and the callers would argue over whether they were for real, whether they could keep it up through September and get into the playoffs. When they lost, it was taken as a sign that their true colors were showing through, that Valentine still didn’t know how to manage the bullpen, that they didn’t have enough to beat the Braves.

Sometimes the Mets would play a day game on a Thursday afternoon, and that would be nice, to hear the thing itself instead of the uproar it created.

Somewhere near the Fourth of July, the quality of the radio show took a real dip in quality. Mike and the Mad Dog started alternating vacation weeks, and the show wasn’t the same when one of them wasn’t there. The back-and-forth between the hyper-energetic Mad Dog, and the slow-but-steady Mike Francesa was what made the show worth tuning into.

No one knew what I was up to in the backyard. Nana’s room only had windows facing the front yard, and I would always stop my sessions before my family returned from their outings. When I played baseball at the park with my friends, I never told them about the knuckleball or how it was going, I was just a rightfielder who had trouble judging fly balls and an indifferent hitter with a curious habit of always hitting the ball to the opposite field.

Like all pickup baseball games, our affairs were contentious and arguments were to be expected. Most games ended not with a final out or a dramatic run being scored, but with a fight between the teams over a close play, or a kid deciding he’d had enough and going home, leaving us without enough players.

The arguments typically started before the game itself. Depending on the number of players, we always had to hash out the very rules under which we were about to play. We rarely had a full complement of 18, so some compromising on positions was necessary. Typically we would forego catchers, since without the equipment that position becomes so potentially injurious that no one really ever volunteers.

Without a catcher, the pitcher was placed under a set of restrictions. The pitcher wasn’t allowed to throw it as fast as he could, because there was no one there to catch it if the batter refused to swing. There was just a tree in the way of a backstop, so if you threw a wild one it might roll into the street, delaying the game.

The other arguments were provoked by the dimensions of the playing field. The local park was a small affair, designed mostly for mothers to bring their small children. There were two wide open grass areas, but the larger one was too close to the swingsets and the jungle gym and the slide, and if we tried to play there the moms would yell at us for endangering their precious offspring.

So we were forced to make do with the smaller field. In left-field the gate around the tennis courts made for a fine fence, comparable to the Green Monster at Fenway. It was not that far away from home plate, but its height made up for that. Still, there were some who argued that a ball hit over it should not be a home run. This came up every time, and we never ever settled on one system. If there was no tennis game going on, sometimes we would let the team play an outfielder inside the courts, and if he caught it the batter would be out, but if he couldn’t it would be a home run. If there was a tennis game in progress, we were afraid of people complaining to the Parks Department about our games, so hitting the ball over the short fence was an out, which was meant to keep people from trying to do it.

There was no fence in right-field which is where I usually hit the ball. That meant there was really no way to hit a home run in that direction.

Near the end of summer I had got my knuckleball to the point where it would hit inside the frame on a consistent basis. It still wasn’t dipping and diving the way a traditional, successful knuckleball is supposed to. Even with good eyesight, I’d imagine it would have been difficult for me to judge how much the ball was rotating on its way to the target. So I decided the only true test was to take it out for a spin in a real game.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to get my friends to let me pitch. Because you weren’t allowed to throw hard, pitching was kind of a boring thing to do. You pretty much had to lay it in there and let the other guy hit it. Letting people wail on your pitches isn’t exactly an ego boost.

So one day in late-August, when you could have counted the days left until school started on just your fingers, I decided to make my debut as a knuckleballer. I didn’t want to start the game, but after a few innings and with my team up a couple of runs I volunteered to give the guy on the mound a break. He eagerly trotted to my post in the outfield, and I took the mound.

The first batter was a kid whose name I can’t even remember. He was two years younger than I was, which meant he’d be starting the sixth grade that fall. I can still see him stepping in at the plate. He was a short, scrawny kid, probably under five feet tall and weighing less than a hundred pounds. He had a short buzzcut which looked like he’d been forced into by a recent bout of lice. The bat’s length was probably more than half his height.

I decided not to waste any time. With the ball inside my glove to hide my purpose, I positioned my fingernails on the seams and reminded myself of the proper motion. I took a breath, aimed, and released.

The ping of the aluminum was a sickening sound. The ball took off toward the tennis courts, sailed over the top of the gate for a home run (as we’d decided in the pre-game arguments), but it wasn’t done. The ball eventually hit the other fence, the one on the other side of the tennis court. It was the most improbable and impressive home run any of us had ever seen.

It was also the end of my baseball career.

The Newsroom: "The 112th Congress"

Aaron Sorkin is breaking all the rules of television. He is telling, not showing. He is forsaking nuanced characters for broad archetypes. He is not playing fair or giving equal weight to both sides of a conflict. In short, he is doing whatever he likes with The Newsroom, indulging in rhetoric and wit. The result is not always the most palatable or rewarding, but damn is it fascinating and fun to watch.

How many dramas do you know that have sped through six months of plot in their third episode? It’s an extremely curious decision, and one which critics understandably find fault with. It does casually disregard the slow build-up or erosion of tension as the staff of News Night 2.0 learn to work together under their new directive to save journalism from itself.

“The 112th Congress” thus seems to indicate that the fictional show may catch up to or even surpass reality, rather than constantly allow its characters a foresight no reasonable humans could be expected to possess. Indeed, the episode shows the first hints of fictionalizing history, as actors (including the great Philip Baker Hall) portray fictitious congressmen. Perhaps when Will McAvoy and co. reach nearer to the present day, Sorkin will use his talents to script fake but plausible news stories for them to cover, allowing the drama to come from a more satisfying place than from the irony of the audience knowing something the characters do not.

This time around Sorkin feels like dealing with the Tea Party, and gets things started by making the sure not to upset anybody comparison to the SDS and Abbie Hoffman. McAvoy, who literally appears to be a Republican just because Sorkin assumes he can get away with more that way, feels that the Tea Party was a legitimate movement that has been co-opted by extreme right-wingers. Which seems to neglect the fact that many of the people in the movement are extreme right-wingers, but forgot it, he’s rolling.

Sorkin’s treatment of the election is also a little too simplistic and one-sided, with a particularly frequent trick the cutting away from a gotcha question before the other side even takes a stab at coming up with a response. The implication, obviously, is that nothing they can say could possibly be an adequate response. It’s all done in service of making Will look like a super-genius, and it’s largely unnecessary.

I did enjoy that around the margins of the show, Sorkin seemed to be calling himself out on his own worse tics. Will harasses the on-air analyst over seemingly self-conflicted voting patterns to make a point, but the analyst is annoyed at being used in such a way. Will’s co-anchor Elliot references Mama Rose to Don, and then has to explain the reference when Don states without any shame that he doesn’t understand it.

I am far more invested in the attempts to get the news right than I am in the characters entangled personal lives. Of the two romantic subplots the show is building up, the Maggie-Don-Jim triangle is much less obnoxious than the Will and Mac storyline, which is really just the Ted McGinley arc from SportsNight repurposed. Maggie’s panic attack seemed like a retrofitted explanation for her flighty behavior, but it did lead to a nice scene between her and Jim, and I liked the grace note of her apparently having discussed Jim with her roommate.

“The 112th Congress” is framed largely in retrospect, as Charlie is in a meeting with the hated Reese and his Reese’s mother, the owner of ACN’s parent company, who just happens to be played by Jane Fonda. (This whole time, Charlie has been telling Will that the management is fine with what they are doing.) Fonda is silent for most of the episode’s run-time, allowing her austere presence to hang over the proceedings like the sword of Damocles. When she finally delivers her ultimatum, that Will had better lay off the Tea Party congressmen now that they can affect business, or else he’ll be fired, it is a powerful, if over-written, performance. Fonda is the villain this show desperately needs. She’s not an imbecile, she’s not someone who can be manipulated, she has her reasons and they are sound, but she stands opposed to everything Charlie, Will, and Mac are fighting for, and her enormous resources and power are more than enough to make her a credible threat. The stakes have been raised, and it should ramp up the drama considerably.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

My Emmy Nominations- Comedy

The nominations are not for another week and a half or so, but I was inspired by finally catching up to HBO's Girls to make my picks for the most deserving nominees for the Comedy Emmys. Lena Dunham's creation is strongly represented below, as I am sure it will be at the actual awards. The most interesting phenomenon I noted was that I had a much easier time coming up with nominees for the Supporting categories, where I had to struggle a bit to fill up the Leads. I think this goes to show that the strongest comedies on TV are true ensemble pieces rather than star vehicles. Indeed, I was only able to fill out the Lead Actor category when I learned that a few people I had assumed where Supporting had actually submitted as Lead. Anyway, here are my choices. As usual I care not a bit about accurately presaging the whims of the actual voters, so these are merely my preferences, and are in no way predictive.

Best Supporting Actor
Adam Driver, Girls
Danny Pudi, Community
Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation
Donald Glover, Community
Max Greenfield, New Girl
Ty Burrell, Modern Family

Thoughts: Driver's character is unlike anything else ever seen on TV. He's weird, disturbing, utterly fascinating, and yet totally relatable and even charming. This will probably go to a Modern Family guy, though.

Best Supporting Actress
Gillian Jacobs, Community
Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family
Eliza Coupe, Happy Endings
Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory
Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother

Thoughts: Very deep category, as I left out Allie Grant, Cheryl Hines, Busy Phillips, Julie Bowen, Alison Brie, Allison Williams, and Jane Krakowski, among others. I just think Britta is one of the most complex female characters I've ever seen in a comedy.

Best Actor
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Louis C.K., Louie
Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation
Garret Dillahunt, Raising Hope
Joel McHale, Community

Thoughts: Difficult category. I don't really think of Dillahunt, McHale, or Scott as true leads but they are all damn funny. I love C.K. and his show, but Baldwin's Jack Donagy is a never-ending source of absurdity, satire, and wit.

Best Actress
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Lena Dunham, Girls
Zooey Deschanel, New Girl
Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope
Jane Levy, Suburgatory

Thoughts: A lot of very funny women here, but this really isn't close. Leslie Knope is an inspired creation, and Poehler can do anything and everything. From her debate performance, to her emotional trip to the voting booth, to her farcical campaign speech on an ice rink, Poehler is never not perfect.

Best Comedy Series
Parks and Recreation
30 Rock
Happy Endings
New Girl

Thoughts: If you don't watch Parks and Recreation, you are missing out on what I feel is the best show on TV, no qualifiers needed.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jeff (Jason Segel) is a 30-year-old pothead loser with no job who lives in his mother’s basement. His obsession with the movie Signs leads him to look for the mysterious connections in seemingly chance occurrences. His brother Pat (Ed Helms) is a salesman in a failing marriage pushed to the brink by his ill-considered purchase of a Porsche. Their mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) is a lonely woman wondering if she has any adventures left in life.

Through a series of unbelievable and at times unconvincing coincidences, the film brings this family to a moment of quite literal crisis, and their actions lead them to a better understanding of each other.

Though all the principal performances, including supporting turns from Judy Greer and Rae Dawn Chong, are very good, the movie itself can’t escape it’s too slight frame. The script from Mark and Jay Duplass piles coincidence upon coincidence on the story in an effort to give their narrative greater heft than it can bear. The result is that an otherwise smart film is burdened by a mish-mashed message of feel-good New Age tripe that overlooks or excuses all of its characters serious flaws in the name of a happy ending.

It’s a shame really, since the concept is a fairly appealing one. A slacker finds redemption through helping his brother deal with the collapse of his marriage. The finale is also surprising and quite emotional. But upon a minute’s consideration, the trappings of the movie are troublesome enough to dampen one’s enjoyment of the film considerably.

Monday, July 2, 2012

To Rome With Love

I’ve never been to Rome, and perhaps the best compliment I can give to Woody Allen’s latest movie is that it caused me to resolve to mend that oversight. Though the Eternal City doesn’t quite become as vibrant a character within the film as the City of Lights did in last year’s Midnight in Paris, or as New York has in so many of Allen’s films, Rome does look like a very nice place to visit, or even to stay for a while.

The characters in this anthology are comprised of a mix of tourists, natives, and those who’ve come to stay. Each of them seems taken with the endless possibilities offered and the experiences to be had. They are also for the most part men and women longing to establish themselves and their work, perhaps feeling pressured to live up to the permanence of the city around them. More than one character makes reference to Ozymandias, Shelley’s foolhardy king who failed to consider that his achievements would one day be forgotten. It’s an apt metaphor, no matter how hard Allen runs it into the ground through repetition.

The four stories that make up To Rome With Love are not at all connected, which becomes refreshing when one considers what kind of absurd contrivances would have been necessary to get this disparate crowd in the same room. As it is, the only justification offered for telling these stories together comes in the form of a traffic-cop narrator, a device which is mercifully dropped without mention.

As for the stories: Woody Allen and Judy Davis fly to Rome after their daughter’s whirlwind romance finds her engaged to an Italian leftist lawyer. Allen’s character gets off to a rocky start when he performs his typical nebbishy act on the plane when it experiences minor turbulence, but like the plane itself, Allen settles in for a smooth ride to the finish. His character is a retired producer of operas, and his old fires start burning when he discovers that his daughter’s new father-in-law is a naturally gifted singer who has never performed anywhere but the shower.

Jesse Eisenberg is a young architect whose solid relationship with Greta Gerwig is severely tested when her spirited and adventurous friend Monica (Ellen Page) comes to crash with them after a bad breakup. Eisenberg’s inner monologue is dramatized by his mentor, an older architect played by a very funny Alec Baldwin.

Roberto Benigni is a sad-sack office worker who can’t get anyone to listen to his opinions until one day, without explanation, he is the hottest celebrity in Rome, with paparazzi hounding him at every opportunity and breathlessly asking him banal questions such as what he had for breakfast.

The final story features a pair of newlyweds from the Italian countryside who are settling in Rome. Unfamiliarity with the byzantine streets and several miscommunications lead to the two being separated for the day, and each spends the day with a surrogate spouse. He is forced to have a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) pose as his wife at an important function, and she winds up bonding with a legendary film star.

The Allen story and the newlywed plot each build to fantastically constructed farces, while the Benigni story is more consistently funny throughout. The love triangle between Eisenberg, Gerwig, and Page is the only disappointment, as it fizzles out and limps to a conclusion. In such a large ensemble it is perhaps inevitable that some characters and actors will get the short end of the stick, and here Gerwig is the unfortunate one. Her character never becomes fully involved in the story, and because of that it is hard to become too interested in whether Eisenberg will stay faithful to her.

Still, after a rough twenty minutes or so, a remarkable number of the film’s jokes start to land, and the comic resolutions offered are so good as to forgive the number of contrivances required to bring them about.

At 76 years old, Woody Allen is still making a film every year, and while To Rome With Love is unlikely to earn him his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar in a row, it is a very pleasant trip to an inscrutable city.

The Newsroom: "News Night 2.0"

Despite some tone-deaf contrivances, and an alarming inability to create realistic female and minority characters, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom is still delivering promising drama and television worth watching.

“News Night 2.0” is about the effort it takes to do the news the way it should be done, and avoid falling into the traps of laziness and routine. In a spirited discussion with her staff, Mackenzie McHale helpfully illuminates the many ways other cable news shows veer off track, from chasing after entertaining stories and footage instead of facts, to striving pathetically to present both sides of an argument fairly whether or not both sides really deserve it. It’s a great showcase for the character, as she comes across as knowledgeable, capable, and formidable, right up to the moment when she gets easily confused by the new email system and then knocks over the white-board with her plan written on it.

This has been something that has plagued a lot of Sorkin’s efforts over the years, and it is a tic that is aging extremely poorly. The career-woman who is super-confident and capable in her limited sphere but a bumbling mess everywhere else, especially in relationships, is among the most tired of rom-com clichés. It’s disappointing whenever the gifted Emily Mortimer is forced to put herself through such a display.

Maggie Jordan’s problematic character is similarly thwarted by a screwball personal life. She causes an important guest to cancel at the last minute because she can’t resist making a joke to her ex-boyfriend. It’d be one thing if this felt truly organic to her character, but it’s hard to look past the fact that all of Sorkin’s easily befuddled characters have been women, whereas Sorkin men are either so committed to work that they have no personal lives, or else do not ever let them affect the quality of their work. Perhaps Sorkin is trying to point out society’s differing expectations for working men and working women, but in reality it seems more one-sided than that.

(And it’s probably best not to spend too much time discussing how out-of-touch it is for the only two black characters Sorkin wrote in to the show to spend all of their time bickering with each other about Obama.)

In spite of all that, there was a lot to like about the episode. Whenever the show within the show actually goes live, the drama is ramped up to such an extent that it forces the viewer to pay attention. After the extremely good show put on in the pilot, it was nice to see the staff screw up a bit, and wind up with exactly the kind of segment they are supposed to avoid: a farcical panel consisting of a loony militiaman, a racist crank, and a beauty queen fixated on her own issues.

That scene also played nicely as Will’s payback to Mackenzie for her revealing details of his personal life, which, though it came from the hack contrivance of the wayward email, was a necessary piece of information for the audience. It was, after all, just about the only thing that could possibly explain why Mackenzie was insisting on Will’s being a good guy, when all the show had done was to show us the opposite. (And it’s still not all that convincing, given his condescension to Olivia Munn’s leggy economic expert and his misplaced anger in general.)

The Newsroom may not be living up to the lofty expectations set for it, but so far it has proven to be an entertaining mess with some seriously good points to make about the low standards we have for our news coverage. There are a lot of places where the show can be polished up, but if this were a show created by anyone other than the man behind Sports Night and The West Wing, I feel like critics would be more willing to wait and see what develops.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Calico Joe by John Grisham

Baseball may no longer be the undisputed national pastime, but it remains the sport most conducive to great stories and lasting literature. There’s something within the game itself, perhaps the mythic stature of its legends and its unchanging nature, that makes it nearly impossible for the pre-eminent American authors to resist addressing the game. Now, John Grisham, whose legal thrillers are automatic bestsellers at this point, has stepped up to the plate and, like the rookie phenom at the heart of this new novel, knocks one out of the park.

It’s 1973, and eleven-year-old Paul Tracey has a rocky relationship with his father, the worst and most volatile pitcher in the New York Mets starting rotation. Warren Tracey takes his frustrations away from the field and visits them on his family, fraying his storybook marriage with alcoholism and abuse.

Still, if Paul doesn’t always love his father, he has unconditional love for the game the man plays. Baseball is Paul’s life and his dream, even if his father’s emotional distance limits how much the two of them can share of the game. Paul’s love of baseball leads him to be captivated by the thrilling exploits of Calico Joe Castle, the Cubs’ new first basemen (nicknamed after the small Arkansas town that produced him), who is setting records left and right, wowing fans all over the country.

Through repeated reference to the brevity of Calico Joe’s career, the tragic end to the story becomes clear and inevitable. A fateful pitch from the hand of Paul’s father changes the lives of all three characters forever. Though the event itself is predictable, it does not in any way lessen the impact of the moment itself or of its fallout.

The novel is told from the perspective of distance, as Paul learns of his father’s terminal cancer, and despite years without contact, decides to try and get his father admit to and apologize for what he has done. Grisham does a wonderful job illuminating the complicated relationship between a grown man and the father he can neither forgive nor forget.

Like all great baseball stories, the story of Calico Joe falls just beyond the realm of possibility, or at least seems to, until one considers all the strange but true things that have happened in the long history of the game. Despite the tragic outcomes, Grisham’s writing remains playfully aware of the endless possibilities presented by a game played without a clock, day after day for half of every year, seemingly without end.