Father's Day Special: A Man Struggling to Be a Good Father After Divorce
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The first thing I do in the morning is open the newspaper to the sports section and check out the baseball box scores with my morning tea. During the course of the day I read dozens of articles about many aspects of news, politics and culture, but I always start with baseball. I know a number of other men who do the same thing. Why is that?
It probably has something to do with deeply ingrained ritual -- I learned how to read before I started to go to school from NYC tabloid sport sections when I was a kid, matching the names of the players I heard with their pictures and stats. Perhaps being aware of which teams are hot, who is hitting and who is not -- the more mundane aspects of the marathon season of 162 games -- provides a predictable cushion to the psychic jolts that accompany the news every day: war, famine, oil gushers, corporate corruption and the rest. Baseball is something I can manage before tackling the unmanageable. And it surely offers many other profound meanings and uses for millions of its fans. But whatever they may be, baseball remains "America's pastime," an obsession for some, and the conversational backdrop for many.
Because I played baseball nonstop from ages 7-19, and still follow it, I feel I have a modest expertise when it comes to evaluating baseball books. I mention this because there is a book I want you to know about, written by a long-time friend, so my review won't be totally objective. * In fact, I liked Jeff Gillenkirk's novel, Home, Away so much when I first read it, that I worked to get it published. (Jeff ended up doing that on his own with Chin Music Press, where you can order the book directly and support independent publishing.)
But Gillenkirk's book is hardly just about baseball -- which is why it is an important book. Using baseball as a backdrop, Gillenkirk explores the fundamentals of personal life -- intimacy, relationships, miscommunication, anger and missed opportunities. In the process, he digs into a topic that seems quite unexplored in our culture -- the challenges facing a single father who fights to stay part of his son's life after a divorce. At one point in the book, in what seems a shocking decision, the protagonist, the fictional baseball pitcher Jason Thibodeaux, quits the game all together to try to come to grips with his relationship with his son, sacrificing millions of dollars in the process.
The novel offers the reader a deep, no-holds barred profile of a man who is struggling to make sense of his life. It mines the complexity of gender roles, divorce and parenting with a rare honesty and depth. And in the end, after much blaming and missteps, just about everyone in the book gains a decent amount of wisdom about life. There is a fairy tale ending, but I’ll let you discover how that turns out for yourselves.
Home, Away has a long arching narrative covering a number of years, but the tale never lets the reader go. The story is filled with color and flavor, nuance and even geography, as Thibodeaux not only lives the nomadic life of the much-traveled baseball player, but has a powerful experience south of the border. Gillenkirk is impressive as he explores Mexican culture, and provides a layered experience for the life of a gringo pitcher, who learns to respect Mexican family life and earns respect in return.
In the end, I admire the novel so much because it is authentic in two very separate worlds. First Gillenkirk gets the baseball experience down -- there are many rich details, including some of the underside of drinking and carousing, and the rigidity and rigor of the jock's life. He spins his story as only someone who has been immersed in and loves the game can. Gillenkirk hits it out of the park, not just with the actual elements of the games, which are spot on, but also creating multihued personalities and reinforcing the hardhearted reality that baseball can be a very callous business.
So yes, Gillenkirk can write like a knowing jock. But he also gets relationships on a fundamental level, with all their warts, frustrations and challenges. Though Thibodeaux and Vicki, the mother of Rafe, became parents while still in college, they are forced to struggle and work things out. Maintaining a relationship with an ex-spouse involving a child is a mainstay of modern life for many people, like it or not.
Baseball is a part of millions of people's spring, summer and fall lives, and affects relationships with family and partners, especially if there are children. These days baseball is tinged with many of society's darker sides -- cheating, drug abuse, over-sized egos, celebrity, racism and more. But in the end, the players have to go out and prove themselves on the field. And undeniably the same goes for their lives.
Gillenkirk makes clear that as much as we want to focus on the game on the field, the game of life takes precedence: love and hate, intimacy and estrangement, contempt and respect will always be the dominant forces. Jeff Gillenkirk's accomplishment in Home, Away is that he has provided a very entertaining and colorful framework in which to explore with real depth what makes us all tick.
* If you want to read a great review of Home Away , by a real baseball writer go here.