Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Fallen Heroes - Thoughts on Reyes and Wright

I've talked here about Matt Harvey, about the act of watching baseball, and how the game is, in many ways, not merely a story but a part of our uniquely American mythology. In Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Ty Cobb we have organically grown what L. Frank Baum tried to deliberately create - a uniquely American set of folk stories. Total we'll talk about the left side of the Mets infield, and the fall of two of New York's heroes. Will either have a final act, and what will that act entail? That we don't know yet.

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. Two young Mets going the team in the early 2000s, full of promise. Reyes was always the spark. Ebullient, enthusiastic, joyous. He ran like the wind, once completing an inside-the-park home run in just over 14 seconds. Reyes of the elaborate post-home-run handshakes, he of the "Learn Spanish with Professor Reyes" vignettes on the big scoreboard. He was youth, he was fun, he was life.

Then Wright. Where Reyes was all twitch and speed and flair, Wright was all business, class, quiet confidence. A smooth swing, an easy smile, a quiet demeanor. He's the closest the Mets had to what the Yankees had all those years in Derek Jeter; a comforting, steady presence both in the line-up and in the clubhouse. He was front and center with a grin after a big win, and front and center again to say the hard things after a loss.

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. In 2006, as young men, they'd lead the team deep into the post-season, coming one game - one out - even one PITCH from an appearance in a World Series which the Saint Louis Cardinals would eventually win.

Two Thousand six was a long time ago. It felt like the beginning of something grand, although we now know that it wasn't. The years which followed were full of disappointments, struggles. Through it all, Wright and Reyes, Reyes and Wright, until that fateful day after the 2011 season in which Reyes was seduced by riches (and, in fairness, was outside the Mets budget) and took his talents to Miami.

Reyes wandered the wilderness, trading from Miami to distant Toronto after just one season and, when Toronto was finally poised to achieve success, traded again to Colorado.

Wright stayed, remained the one link to 2006, started to grow old before his time, still a Met for his playing life, however long that may be.

Wright and Reyes, Reyes and Wright. Now both at a crossroads, Each fallen in his own way. Wright, laid low by a failing body as he was diagnosed first with spinal stenosis, and now with a herniated disc in his neck. He'll get surgery and may or may not someday return to the field. If he does, it will be as a diminished athlete weakened by the ravages of time - as we all are.

(As an aside, this is my issue with another American mythology: superheroes, especially as portrayed in cinema; we get the beginning of the story, but too rarely the end. Peter Park is always a young man. Bruce Wayne is always donning the cowl for the first time after his parents' murder. Before they can age, mature, move to a different part of their story -- the universe resets and Parker is again bitten by a radioactive spider, Wayne again orphaned. We tell half-stories, never getting to the point in which Sherlock Holmes meets his nemesis at the Reichenbach Falls, or Ajax falling onto his sword after realizing that his time has past. We don't even get Kirk at Veridian III. I'll speak more on that in another post, but I wish we would learn to tell full stories)

Reyes' story could have been a classic - heroic figure leaves, wanders the figurative desert for a time, returns triumphantly. His fall, however, was of a different kind in that he spent fully the first third of this season suspended from baseball under MLB's new domestic violence policy after throwing his wife into a glass door while vacationing in Hawaii. He's since lost his starting job to a young rookie and been essentially cut by the team, who will pay him the remaining nearly forty-million dollars owed on his contract for the service of going away and never being seen there again.

After Reyes' domestic violence incident, the story changes. Now the story becomes not only about a hero whose fall is a moral issue, but it becomes part of a larger societal story about abuse of women in the world of athletics and the lack of repercussions. It's a story that includes Ray Rice initially suspended only two games after hitting his wife. Brock Turner given a minimal sentence after raping an unconscious woman. Aroldis Chapman pitching for the Yankees after firing a gun during a domestic dispute with his wife. Santonio Holmes returning to the gridiron after beating his wife. It's Fransisco Rodriguez continuing to close baseball games after domestic violence, including assaulting his then-girlfriend's father at an actual ball game. 

The story or Reyes can become part of another myth - the myth of professional athletics and the import of success on the field. The story that the safety and health of the women surrounding athletes are less important than success on the field. A story we tell every time Chapman dons the Yankee pinstripes and which Reyes would tell if again wore the orange and blue. This is why - after years of missing his on-field ebullience - I'd be furious to see Reyes again don a Mets uniform.

Is what he did forgivable, and can he have a path to redemption? Perhaps. That forgiveness cannot takes place on the baseball diamond, lest we reinforce the message that women are less important than sport. That we cannot do.

And of Wright's future? He's in pain. He's played in pain all year, and all year last year. IT takes hours for him to prep his injured back before each game. Later? After neck surgery? Perhaps he'll be able to come back and the story will be that of overcoming hardship. Perhaps not and the story will be about how time finally defeated him. As it does everyone. 

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. Two stars, beloved by Mets fans from their youngest days. Neither on the field at present. Wright's story is in its last pages. Reyes' - at least for me - is over. I won't watch him again, won't cheer for him again. 

One may never play again due to age and injury. One should never play again for the message his return would send.

 It's not the way any of us wanted or expected either story to end. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review - The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Had anyone else written The Fireman, I'd be tempted to compare it to Stephen King. We have an implausible global disaster treated as if real, tight focus on a decent and resourceful group of survivors, even a New England setting. It's a comparison I fought against making because it isn't, in the end, fair. King is King and Hill is Hill, as obvious as it is that the former influenced the latter in as many ways as possible. For the nonce, let's set comparisons aside and talk about the novel itself. Expect minor spoilers herein, but not too much to preclude your enjoyment of the book when you choose to read it (and you should. Trust me on this).

The disaster in The Fireman comes in the shape of a mysterious disease called "Dragonscale". It manifests itself in patters of black markings on a victim's skin and is perfectly harmless - with the exception of causing those infected to literally burst into flame. Our first brush with the disease comes through the eyes of Harper Grayson, a Disney-quoting elementary school nurse. Some of my favorite parts of the early chapters deal with the relationship between Harper and her husband, Jakob. Jakob is smart. He's intellectual. He's charming. His talents range from the ability to ride a unicycle to being really good at sex.  However, the more we see of him the more we see an underlying self-centered-ness, a pettiness, a nastiness. When the school in which Harper works closes indefinitely due to the 'scale crisis and Harper is pressed into service at a hospital, it becomes clear that Jakon sees her patients with a pitying disdain rather than compassion. I wish we'd lingered a bit more on the positive side of the marriage before learning that it was a false-front, but learn we do and in a shocking and impactful way. Jakob can be read as every man with a feeling of entitlement, not as much intellect as he thinks he has, and a bitter disappointment with his lot in life. As civilization falls, so too does the veneer of civility Jakob has built around his rotten inner core. The horror in reading this book is not the image of a person bursting into flame: it's that we all know too many Jakobs, and that Hill is showing us what they are like inside.

One of my favorite kinds of moments in any fantastic novel is the moment in which what you think you knew proves to be wrong. We soon meet John Rockwood, the titular Fireman, a conflicted hero with a tragic past and a maddening tendency to set himself apart and attempt to be mysterious.   Rockwood has found a way to control the dragonscale, not only avoiding self-immolation but even gaining control over fire itself, using it as a weapon or a tool. The entire middle third of the book takes place in a sort of hidden commune in which a small but growing infected population hides from the roving quarantine patrols who seek to eradicate the disease at gunpoint. It's little surprise to see Jakob reemerge with one of them.

I'll make a note here on language: Hill does a terrific job working ways of referring to the new infestation into the book's dialog. The quarantine patrols sometimes call themselves (and are called) cremation crews, and refer to the infected as "burners". A bargain-basement talk-radio host gives himself the moniker "Marlborough Man" because he's smoked so many burners. These are lovely touches which add to the feeling of immersion.

We also had an odd, seemingly out of left field reference to Martha Quinn,  rumored to be a leaderof a safe space for the infected. Martha Quinn became an unlikely symbol through much of the book, and a source of hope. As a child of the 1980s, I found the inclusion of a literal voice from our collective past to be a tiny delight.

Anyway, the book is about how people deal with the crisis rather than the crisis itself. We have the Camp Wyndham community dealing with the threat of cremation squads. The uninfected dealing with the fear of infection. Everyone fearing fire. There are breakdowns in social order and, while there are villains, it isn't the villains which most interested - or most chilled me. It was the all-too-real way seemingly decent and reasonable people would follow them, and how quickly a community can slide from communal love to communal hatred. The book is at its best at those points. I do wish, as I said, that we'd had a tiny bit  more of Jakob toward the beginning and, to be honest, a tiny bit less toward the end. His constant reappearance made absolute thematic sense, but ultimately veered into horror-fiction cliche territory.

And there's one moment in which we see a communal act of kindness toward those infected, only to see it subverted into something else. THis is a part about which I thought for a long time. Did the people know the real result of their charity? Were they deliberately fooling themselves? Did they fail morally in giving from a distance, and not following up? Or were they simply doing the best they thought they could? It was a nice, poignant, and ambiguous moment.

Comparison time again:  I've stated in the past that I see an unsavory message in the works of HP Lovecraft in that his central theme - fear of the other - is a mirror of and metaphor for his racism. In one discussion on the topic, someone asked me if that is part and parcel of horror fiction in general. Clearly in my mind - and I suspect in Hill's - it is not. The horror in The Fireman was not the Dragonscale, was not even the fear of self-immolation. It was the moment that a seemingly loving husband showed us the monster within. It's the moment that a community of survivors let fear and anger twisted it into something ugly.

Horror isn't fear of the other; it's fear of ourselves, and what can let ourselves become in moments of fear as we fight for our own protection.

This book is horror. And it's good horror. I strongly recommend that you go read it.