Baseball Book Review: The Man with Two Arms

Ron KaplanContributor IJune 14, 2010

NEW YORK - APRIL 16: A fan wears a Mickey Mantle jersey outside the new Yankee Stadium before the first pitch on opening day April 16, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The New York Yankees are playing against the Cleveland Indians in the first regular season MLB game at the new venue across the street from the old Yankee Stadium.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images

by Billy Lombardo (Overlook, 2010)

The last couple of titles I’ve blogged about contain stories with father and son issues (Steinbrenner and Home, Away ). So, with Father’s Day coming up, I figured I complete the trifecta with The Man with Two Arms

The great love of Henry Granville’s life is baseball. It is a time-honored tradition he knows he will pass on to his son, Danny, over the objections of his wife, Lori.

This is where things almost immediately bog down. Lombardo is a gifted storyteller; his words evoke all the imagery he intends, but he intends too much.

We get that Danny’s mother doesn’t want Henry to push him, but we know that Henry will continue to do just that—albeit not like Jimmy Piersall’s dad in the movie version of Fear Strikes Out —and this will create discord that may or may not destroy the family unit.

Henry sees great things for his son even before the infant takes his first steps. And when the little lad shows an unprecedented ambidextrous talent, we have a combination of Roy Hobbs, Mickey Mantle, and Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.

A superman of the diamond.

The novel proceeds through Danny’s little league years, where he is, of course, miles beyond his contemporaries, as dad struggles to keep secret the fact that the boy is blessed with the right-handed talent of a Tom Seaver and the lefty skills of a Sandy Koufax.

Why this has to be kept a secret is never wholly explained, other than the fact the he doesn’t want Danny to be scrutinized as an oddity.  (The story is set in the 1980s and ’90s, predating the Major League debut of Pat Venditte ; Granville is much better).

Henry and Danny are co-conspirators; they hone his skills in such a way that no pitch is wasted, allowing him to work on a strict pitch count that will one day permit him to work twice as often as the standard one-arm hurler.

In addition to his prowess on the mound, Danny is skilled as an artist and as a high school student, meets and ultimately falls in love with the college-aged art teacher who moves into the family duplex.

Lombardo offers little suspense when he draws out his scenes; the reader can pretty much guess what will happen, so the added descriptions do little to advance the story. I kept waiting for some dire accident—some shoe to drop that would turn this into a tragedy (the introduction of an additional superior skill added to that tantalizing feeling).

But for most of the book, Danny’s career goes according to plan. He zips through the minors and winds up on the family’s favorite major league team, winning twice as many games because of his unique skills. Did I say wins? Dominates! Multiple strikeouts, minimal pitch count, no-hitters, perfect games.Things are going fine until a “Max Mercy” type (see Malamud’s The Natural ) threatens the karma.

One particularly troubling episode for me comes during Danny’s inevitable start in the All-Star game. Suffice it to say, the exposition of what transpires as set forth by the Howard Cosell-like broadcaster is almost insulting to the fan reading the book. (I suppose allowances have to be made to those who don’t have a basic understanding of the game, although with so much nuance about inner baseball—which remains the main theme—I don’t know those unfamiliar would even be tempted to pick up the book.)

All along the way, you wait for that one misstep, that one event that will derail Danny. And of course it does come, but not quite with the results one might expect.

The Man with Two Arms rushes to its conclusion, as if the author realized time was expiring and he had to wrap things up. As such, it’s a hasty end and to me, not very satisfying.

I’ve read other reviews on this anticipated title. I wonder who wrote them; that is, whether they were looking at it as a baseball novel or something broader. They compare Lombardo with Malamud and Kinsella. Perhaps more of the latter, since there’s a good deal of fantasy here that requires the reader to suspend disbelief.