In this era of following baseball, where sabermetrics trump the narrative and where OPS and WAR are winning a holy war over RBI and ERA, Fontana is a energizing reminder that America’s pastime can be, at its essence, about people—about The Boys of Summer, and the Summer of ’49, about Ball Four, The Natural, even mighty Casey at the Bat.
So perhaps what’s most surprising then about Fontana, about its ability to remind us that baseball is about splendid splinters and say hey kids and iron horses, is that the novel lacks a start-to-finish hero. In fact, it’s that juxtaposition author Joshua Marino achieves that makes the leading characters so vivid, so connectable. While baseball stories have been told for more than a century, Fontana is an original. Yes, our narrator is guiltily flawed, but he’s compassionate; he’s at once worn down and washed out, yet naïve. Our protagonist a once-in-a-generation talent, but an unwilling, unwitting, star—a willing face on a baseball card but a reluctant pioneer of a crusade. Our supporting characters essential to the story, but they do not steal scenes so much you wish the novel were about them. It’s a delicate balance and one Martino, in this his first novel, finds subtly, effectively.
What Fontana does have in spades is pace. The narrative is tight; it moves quickly along from spring training to mid-summer without feeling rushed, but never feeling slow. Martino would make Hemingway proud with his ability to get in and out of scenes without overstaying his welcome. Like a Hemingway tale, Fontana is a book seeping with masculinity even if its “hero” is gay. It’s a story where right is right and wrong is so clearly wrong—but only from the outside are these polar ends so visible. Those characters within Fontana struggle realistically to see beyond themselves—unlike in some corners of literature or cinema where the audience endures frustration beyond enjoyment at characters making the same mistakes, or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or simply being unable to see or hear the obviousness in front of them. No, those in Fontana are not sticking to a convenient script.
Fontana, a fast-paced but well-timed 215-page novel, begins as do so many stories about baseball: honoring the glorious records of the past, the heroes of yesteryear, while setting up the present-day challenge of whether these hallowed records—in this case, a .406 batting average and a 56-game hitting streak—could be broken today.
While chasing the records of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (both achieved in 1941) from there on serve merely as a backdrop to a much greater, far more important storyline, they engage the reader in an early game of “will he or won’t he,” a captivating precursor to the book’s second burning question, which is not “is he or isn’t he,” so much as it is when and how will we find out. Ricky Fontana, the titular character of Martino’s novel, is gay. He’s also a burgeoning 20-year old superstar, the stuff legends—and books—are made of. Never in professional sports has an active male athlete revealed he is gay. Ricky Fontana isn’t just an active male athlete: he is the most promising ballplayer in a generation. He plays in the most visible city in America, New York. And he harbors a secret that the world would do anything to know about. The one who does is a sportswriter, a down-on-his-luck drunk, who’s on the eve of losing his job. It would be as if during this past season, at the height of his barnstorm through the American League, Mike Trout turned out to be gay. But then add 30 more homeruns, matinee idol looks, two of America’s most hallowed sports feats, and the greatest city in the world.
The novel’s arc is crafted skillfully as it traces from spring training to a pennant race to a rousing near-dénouement and then a swift change of direction, like a hard slider on the outside corner, before ending right where it started: in search of hope and something real again.
Martino dazzles with his use of language, of scene-setting and description in his debut novel. “I knew exactly what would be on our table and what she would tell me between forkfuls of one of her specialties and what she would say when she turned off her bedside lamp.” … “A knock-kneed, freckled redhead, she was fair enough to catch a passing glance.” … “His brisk, athletic stride outpaced the traffic choking 45th Street. Shuffling, huffing after him, I had no trouble keeping a stalker’s distance from my target.” … “I found myself staring over the roofs of East Harlem, old brick buildings—some still had chimneys—as far as I could see, like a forest of naked redwoods.” …”We had reached the pinnacle of our professions, yet we could not celebrate. Someone stole the dance floor from beneath our feet, plank by parquet plank.”
There are a few seemingly out of sequence, or incongruous moments in the latter half of the book, as if Martino was trying to get a few too many themes tied up before the book’s end. They’re not enough, however, to curb the novel’s rhythm. The timing catches up. Other small gripes such as the mistake of identifying an enlisted sailor as an ensign (a commissioned officer’s rank) and the fact that Ted Williams’ lone son died in 2004, and thus would not be around today to help honor someone who matched the .406 batting average, are hardly enough to derail the story. While at times the prose can be crass, even vulgar with its penchant for schoolyard slang, it stays germane to the storyline and the baseball clubhouse scenes would feel unnatural without it.
Fontana is, at its core, about the next great sports question: How will the country react to realizing an American sports hero is gay? The novel hopes that when the inevitable does arrive and a gay male professional athlete comes out while he’s still playing, that this country will react the right way and, just as it did a century ago when the great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, eventually realize we truly are all in this together—no better, no worse…no different. Perhaps, then, it’s truly about something societal more than baseball. To borrow from one of the novel’s most lasting moments: “‘The question isn’t, are we ready for a gay athlete?’ Tony said. ‘The question is, why do we have to ask if we’re ready?’”