Friday, March 13, 2009

Book review: "The Celebrant"

Matty told me you were once a pitcher. I suspect that your work is infused with the wish that you were he. You’re not alone. Inside every sportswriter there’s a frustrated athlete, according to the old saw. Why not? The same thing is inside every fan, or anyone who ever picked up a bat and ball.

This quote, spoken by a fictionalized version of sportswriter Hugh Fullerton in “The Celebrant,” digs to the heart of sports fandom: the tired old phrase “those who can’t do, teach,” is similar. Sports fans are essentially failed athletes. Is there a baseball fan in the world who hasn’t at least played catch or swung a baseball bat?

The narrator of “The Celebrant,” which is set in the early part of the 1900s, is Yakov Kaminski - a Jew whose name was Americanized to Jackie Kapp. He is one of these failed athletes. Adept at pitching a curveball, Kapp was on the verge of possible stardom when two factors derailed his dreams: a bad arm and parents who wouldn’t let him pursue the degrading profession. So he turned to a life as a designer for the family jewelry business, and dedicated the rest of his time to rooting for his hometown New York Giants.

During a business trip to St. Louis with his freewheeling brother, Eli, Jackie sees a young Giants pitcher named Christy Mathewson throw a no-hitter. Kapp is so inspired by the performance that he designs a ring to commemorate Mathewson’s achievement.

(In the novel, by the way, that ring becomes the precursor to what we know today as the World Series Ring and Super Bowl Ring.)

Jackie grows to idolize Mathewson, but he is so worried of shattering his own image of the man that he’s afraid to approach him. At this point in the novel, the brothers Kapp diverge down two paths: Jackie, a life of celebrating achievement at a distance (although he does have a few memorable face-to-face encounters with Mathewson), and Eli, a life of rubbing elbows with those his brother idolizes. This becomes critically important to the story of the novel.

So there’s the story of one man’s fascination and celebration of Christy Mathewson.

But then a funny thing happens. In the last fifth of the novel, “The Celebrant” transforms into the best piece of fiction ever written about the Black Sox scandal.

Rumors are swirling around the 1919 World’s Series that the fix is in. But Eli Kapp, who has fallen out of favor with the family business for his lavish lifestyle, has bet his entire portfolio on the White Sox to win. Eli hears about the fix during the series, and asks his brother Jackie to bet on the Cincinnati Reds to balance out his own bets on Chicago.

While Jackie is deciding whether to do what Eli says, he pays one final visit to a sick, dying Mathewson, who sat in the press box with sportswriter Fullerton during the Series and circled suspicious plays on his scorecard. Kapp is still unsure whether the series is being thrown:

[Mathewson] looked at me. “I tell you again that you need none of my wisdom to see the truth of the matter in this World’s Series. It takes no profound knowledge of the game to know where a pitcher belongs on an outfielder’s throw home. You must have learned that, even on the sandlots.”

I saw the play, Cicotte interrupting Jackson’s throw twenty yards in front of home. “Back of the plate,” I said. “He should be backing up the catcher. He had no business in the middle of the diamond.”

“Indeed not,” he said. “Indeed not. …So you have your answer. If’ that’s the sole reason you’ve come here, you may go now to exchange your notes and rescue your brother.” He stared at me, daring me to rise and depart. …

“It isn’t Eli who stands on the precipice,” he said. “It’s you, you, who sways there.”

The last 50 pages of the novel are the strongest, and reason enough to read “The Celebrant.” But the story of Mathewson and his biggest fan is quite a tale.

Maybe W.P. Kinsella was right. Maybe this is “the best baseball novel ever written.”

--Matt Kelsey


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