I don't have the time to explain today. I just wish everybody on this planet could experience the day that I just experienced. I will never use the words unbelievable and the Lord again in the same sentence. Just the most amazing day of my life.
- Curt Schilling, Boston Red Sox pitcher, October 24, 2004
Stewart O'Nan & Stephen King
Hardcover: Published by Scribner on December 2, 2004, 432 pages (ISBN: 0743267524)
Softcover: Published by Scribner on August 16, 2005, 464 pages (ISBN: 0743267532)
Faithful is a rather strange book in several ways. Both Stewart O'Nan (some recommendations of his writing include A Prayer for the Dying, The Night Country, and Wish You Were Here) and Stephen King (try It, The Stand, or The Shining on for size) are successful novelists in their own right and they also share a huge passion for baseball, particularly of the Boston Red Sox variety.
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For those unawares, the Boston Red Sox (along with the Chicago Cubs) were long-time perennial losers. Both franchises went most of the 20th century without winning the World Series (Boston's last victory was in 1918), and both have something of a "losing" tradition, with such mythologies as the Curse of the Goat and the Curse of the Bambino built up around them, almost making their perennial failures in the late months of the baseball season self-fulfilling prophecies.
As a long suffering Cubs fan, I can speak for the horror of rooting for a team that time after time finds creative ways to lose. Much as the Red Sox had Grady Little's inexplicable managerial behavior in not pulling Pedro Martinez, we had Dusty Baker not knowing when to take out Mark Prior. The Cubs have seen the horror of Steve Bartman; the Red Sox have nightmares of Bucky Dent. Much as Boston had to suffer Bill Buckner's World Series-changing bobble in 1986, we had to watch Leon Durham do virtually the same thing in 1984.
Thus, as a Chicago Cubs fan, I felt a certain kinship with my fellow New England baseball fans. More than the followers of any other team, they understood the heartbreak and continual misery of rooting for a team that time and time again would find new and creative ways to break your heart. They had seen routine grounders and pop flies become mystical bedevilments; they had seen inexplicable managerial choices and bizarre off-season acquisitions that were doomed to failure.
Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King are both steeped in the Boston Red Sox history, a team that is more than a baseball team, but an institution woven into their life and the lives of their families. For them, the Boston Red Sox have become a part of the extended family: Pedro Martinez is the high-strung yet overachieving cousin, Johnny Damon is the wild-haired burly uncle, Carl Yastrzemski is the quiet, retired old man sitting with his food thinking his own thoughts, and Ted Williams is the old family patriarch, his ghost hanging over all of the festivities.
This is a book about that family, a relationship that's hard to understand unless you've experienced it.
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Faithful is simply a diary of the 2004 baseball season as seen through the eyes of two obsessive fans of the Boston Red Sox, both of whom are excellent writers. It has a happy ending, of course; the Boston Red Sox manage to reverse 87 years of brutal misfortune and win the 2004 World Series, but the season was plagued with doubt (a terrific June swoon that sent the team to the nether regions of the standings) and controversy (the Alex Rodriguez brawl and the trade of Nomah in particular).
As an obsessive baseball fan myself, the book was a thorough treat. These two men know their game, and the writing's not watered down with the David Halberstam sepia tone to the words. Instead, the book reads as if written by two well-versed cranks on a sports radio station somewhere in New England.
The problem with the approach that they take is that this book is loaded with baseball. There isn't a page that isn't filled to the brim with game recaps, discussion of Red Sox history, or thoughts on other baseball trivia. This is the type of book where several pages are devoted to the merits of Kevin Youkilis, one of the players at the end of the Boston bench whose claim to fame is a high on base percentage. If you don't know what an on base percentage is, this book will bore you to tears; if you don't know why it's important, then a good amount of the discussion will fly right over your head.
I consider myself a rather hardcore baseball fan. I follow the Chicago Cubs on a daily basis, I've read Moneyball, and I can discuss the major goings-on in major league baseball at any given moment. Given this, I felt the book was written for a person with my level of baseball knowledge. This made the book quite fun for me to read, but I would greatly hesitate recommending it to someone with much less baseball knowledge than I had.
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The driving power of this book does not come from the narrative itself. Every baseball fan knows the story of the 2004 season: the Red Sox come back from a 0-3 deficit against the New York Yankees to clinch the American League championship (the first baseball team to come back from such a deficit) and then go on to win their first World Series in 87 years; Curt Schilling pitches and wins two key games in this stretch while having his ankle tendon sutured to his skin. A dedicated fan is aware of even more detail than this: the Moneyball experiment going on in Boston with Bill James on the payroll; the gradual deterioration in the relationship between star Nomar Garciaparra and the team; the rather diverse personalities on the team (Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon come to mind).
The driving power of this book comes from two writers who can write with unbridled passion about something so near and dear to their hearts. Both men are using their normal literary voices here (Stewart O'Nan's careful descriptiveness; Stephen King's fluid imagery and cultural references), but behind both of them is a wonderful, even joyous intensity that is largely not found in their other written works. The words reveal the truth; the Red Sox are a way of life for these men, an integral part of their being. It transcends a simple game on the field; it becomes a passion, a massive shared experience, not altogether different than a Billy Graham crusade held in a giant stadium, the people enrapt with the story unfolding before them.
The book is split up into bite-sized daily entries throughout the season. King's entries are written in bold, whereas O'Nan's entries are set in regular type. This works on two levels: O'Nan's entries are generally longer and more descriptive, plus many casual people who pick up the book will more likely be fans of King than of O'Nan and thus King's entries are more accessible. Also included are excerpts from email exchanges between the two principals, which are much more casually written than the other sections.
In fact, the two writers flow together much like a solid baseball commentary team: O'Nan is clearly the play by play man that keeps the narrative flowing along, whereas King is the color commentator, flavoring up the mix with wordplay and anecdotes. The two play off each other well; in places, I am amazed that the two diaries were written independently of each other because the interplay is so strong. My guess is that the two men already had a firm understanding of the other's writing style.
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I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the ol' national pastime. O'Nan and King bring one of the most memorable seasons of all to brilliant life here, filling the facts we already know with tons of flavor and character. I was already quite familiar with the story of the team's season, but this book kept me engrossed from the first page, making me laugh with their humor in places, and at other times recognizing that sinking feeling that any fan of such a perennial loser can get.
I'm much more hesitant, though, to recommend this book to anyone who is not a baseball fan. Baseball is the meat of this book and for long stretches is the sole subject of the book. Moneyball is probably the best book written on baseball in the last ten years; if you can't stomach that one, then this book will overwhelm and bury you with its relentless, laser-like focus.
Use your own judgement when deciding whether to invest the time into reading this book. I'd recommend a reading of Moneyball if you've not read it already; if you find that one to be too stuck on baseball nuances, then skip this one. Besides, with the constant references to Moneyball, that book becomes almost preparatory reading for Faithful.
I must say, though, as a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan and one who appreciates the writing talent of Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King, I truly loved this book.