Fever Pitch

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September Books: A Reading List for Beginnings

Tom Nissley’s column A Reader's Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. Despite being tucked away three-quarters into the calendar, September is the start of many things: school, fall, football, the biggest publishing season, the return to work after the end of summer. It’s also the beginning of months whose awkwardly Latinate names rhyme with little except themselves. Some poets, understandably, have neglected them: in all his works, for instance, Shakespeare makes no mention of September, October, or November (he refers to March, April, and May dozens of times). But in a title “September” can stand squarely; it’s weightier and more declarative than the short and flighty names of the summer and spring months. There’s “September, 1819,” for instance, in which Wordsworth found spring and summer “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Transposing two digits in her title a century later in “September, 1918,” Amy Lowell caught the familiar beauties of early fall—including an afternoon that’s “the colour of water falling through sunlight”—but she stored them away without tasting them, like a harvest of berries. With the world war not yet over, she was too busy balancing herself “upon a broken world” to enjoy them yet. The best-known September poem also was born in a broken world, at the beginning of the next world war. In the days after Germany invaded Poland, at the “end of a low dishonest decade,” W. H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939,” in which an “unmentionable odour of death...offends the September night” even far from the fighting in his newly adopted home of New York City. Auden spent the rest of his life disowning the poem and its popularity, or at least “loathing” the “trash” of its hopeful line “We must love one another or die,” which he quickly came to see as self-congratulatory (in one later version he substituted “We must love one another and die”). But that line, among others, is what has brought people back to the poem in later Septembers. Lyndon Johnson paraphrased it, ending his apocalyptic “Daisy” ad (which aired just once, on September 7, 1964) with the words “We must either love each other, or we must die.” And the entire poem began circulating again in mass media and in forwarded e-mails in September 2001, when its visions of “blind skyscrapers” and death in September, along with its final call for an “affirming flame,” felt suddenly, movingly contemporary. I don't know about you, but this September the world seems broken too. Let's read one another nevertheless. Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-69; 1825) Part of the pleasure of the British naval administrator's journals is their witty and open portrait of the everydayness of life, but they are deservedly famous as well for their dramatic peaks, including the great fire that engulfed London in the early days of September 1666, in which pigeons, Pepys noticed, hovered by their burning homes for so long their wings were singed. The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) by Beatrix Potter Potter's tales for children began with two illustrated letters she sent to the sons of a friend on September 4 and 5, 1893: the first the story of a mischievous bunny and the second, written the next day so the younger brother wouldn't feel left out, of a frog who dines on "roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce." The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) September is early in the New York social season, but for Lily Bart it’s already getting a little late. She still has her beauty, but she’s twenty-nine and has no money of her own, and the decisions she makes—and doesn’t make—in the first month of Wharton’s great novel will set her course for its remainder. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933) "I may say," Alice B. Toklas was made to say in this book by Gertrude Stein, "that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken": Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead, and Stein herself, "a golden brown presence" in a "warm brown corduroy suit," whom Toklas met in September 1907 after arriving in Paris from San Francisco. Act One by Moss Hart (1959) One of the most dazzlingly entertaining of all backstage memoirs comes to its climactic curtain at the September opening night of Once in a Lifetime, the collaboration between Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman and the young Hart, who is transformed in that moment from a poor, stage-struck nobody into a hit playwright. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) “JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR.” Return to school with Harriet M. Welsch, self-appointed sixth-grade spy and future writer, who reckoned with the slippery ethics of observing and reporting long before Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer. Stoner by John Williams (1965) The “campus novel” is almost always a comedy, but Stoner, long overlooked but now becoming a classic, is a campus tragedy, and not less of one because of the petty academic quarrels, which in other hands might be turned into farce, that drive its hero’s inexorable disappointment. Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer (1968) There had been few glimpses into the mind of an offensive lineman (in fact, few suspected lineman had minds) before Kramer, the all-pro right guard of the Green Bay Packers, published this diary of the 1967 season, in which he quoted Shakespeare without shame, analyzed the motivational genius of his coach, Vince Lombardi, and observed the NFL growing from a part-time job into the beginnings of the entertainment leviathan it has since become. Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969) A few years after launching his career by profiling Bill Bradley at Princeton, McPhee painted a double portrait of two American tennis stars via their U.S. Open semifinal match at Forest Hills, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, opposites on the court and off: black and white, liberal and conservative, artistic and businesslike, free-swinging and stiff, cool and anxious. Deliverance by James Dickey (1970) It’s a little weekend trip for four men from the suburbs into the nearby wilderness, canoeing down a Georgia river about to be dammed. If everything goes right, they’ll get back in time for the second half of the Sunday football game on TV. In the meantime, they might get in touch with something real. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984) All is gray: the garden, the lake beyond, “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible farther shore.” It’s late September, well into the off-season, with reduced rates for the few visitors to the Hotel du Lac, where Edith, a romance novelist with a romance problem of her own, escapes for a “mild form of sanctuary.” We’re in Switzerland, but we’re also in Brookner country, home of isolation, disappointment, and quiet determination. White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985) Every September the station wagons—they’d now be minivans—arrive on campus, disgorging tanned kids and dorm supplies in a ritual that begins the school year at DeLillo’s generic midwestern college, where education has become untethered from any meaning beyond a nervous self-consciousness. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990) The central document in Malcolm's ruthless vivisection of the seductions and betrayals of journalism is a September letter in which reporter Joe McGinniss wrote to his subject, the just-convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald--long after McGinniss was convinced of MacDonald's guilt--"It's a hell of a thing--spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey--not for long." Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992) It's not only in the U.S. that the end of summer means the start of football season, and for 11-year-old Nick Hornby, made vulnerable by divorce, a new home, and a new school, his first professional soccer match, at Arsenal's home ground in September 1968, began the glorious and inexplicable tyranny that Arsenal football has held over his life ever since. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shuh-Lien Bynum (2008) Every September Ms. Hempel turns to write on the blackboard, “First Assignment,” and soon, as in each of her other fall semesters, the American colonists will rebel and their revolution will be won. Not much older than the middle-school kids she’s instructing in history, and not much more sure of what she’s becoming, Bynum’s raw young teacher is open to experience and, most thrillingly, unprotected from it. Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012) There are many layers of time and space diagrammed in the fourteen books and pamphlets contained in Ware's big box of comics about a small Chicago apartment building, but one pamphlet narrows his tales to a single September day, a quiet Saturday the seems so morosely typical that it spins the building's inhabitants into despair until, for one of them at least, it becomes an anniversary to remember. Image via rvoegtli/Flickr

The Millions Interview: Tom McAllister

At the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied fiction, Tom McAllister became known as "the ultimate Philly guy."  No  wonder, considering he grew up in a row house, attended La Salle University, teaches at Temple, and even worked in a cheesesteak shop.  But a person cannot be so reduced, as McAllister explores in his new memoir Bury Me in My Jersey.  His book is a look at how his relationship with two of the major forces in his life -- his father and the Philadelphia Eagles -- have shaped him as a man and as a writer.  As Justin Cronin says, "Within these unflinchingly honest pages lies a profound and personal meditation on manhood itself—on fathers and sons, on the inheritance of place, on the customs of a tribe and finding one’s place within it."  A moving and very funny memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey transcends mere sports writing to form a portrait of an individual through the prism of the team and city he loves. The Millions: I’m curious about the structure of this book.  It opens with the Eagles in the Super Bowl and you in your friend’s basement, watching the game.  From there, we move forward and backward in time before eventually arriving back in that basement.  Was this always how the book opened?  How did you decide that the Super Bowl had to be the opening? Tom McAllister: I had originally considered starting with the eventual second chapter, which had been published as an essay in Black Warrior Review.  I still think that’s probably the best written chapter in the book, and one that presents a good overview of all the issues in the book: the football obsession, the message boards, my dad’s death, my relationship with my wife, and so on.  Pretty much the only major theme it doesn’t cover is the stuff about growing up in Philly. I decided to start with Super Bowl XXXIX, though, for two reasons.  First, it was very pivotal time for me, both personally and as a fan: the Eagles, obviously, were at their peak, but I was at one of my lowest points, as I was drowning in grad school, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and still struggling with my dad’s death, among other things.  In hindsight, I realized how much I’d pinned my hopes on the Eagles, as if a Super Bowl win would somehow save me, which, of course, is short-sighted, but which is a pretty common trope in sports (think of all the stories about how the Saints Super Bowl last year made post-Katrina New Orleans all better).  Second reason: once I started writing that scene, I came up with the eventual first line (“This book, like so many other stories in this city, begins and ends in the same place.”) and right away, I knew that line was exactly how I wanted to open the book.  It hit the exact voice and tone I wanted to establish. Okay, one more reason: I was very focused on organization in this book, and was determined to avoid a chronological retelling of my life as a fan.  That seemed a) boring, and b) not conducive to good storytelling, because I didn’t want to have to go season-by-season.  That would have killed any narrative drive I tried to establish. TM: Considering that this is a deeply personal story and one that couldn’t have been easy to tell, were you ever tempted to make it a work of fiction, to try to process your relationship with your father through the veil of a story or novel? McAllister: I was most tempted to make it fictional when the real-life details were inconvenient to the narrative.  There’s a chapter that’s focused entirely on a winter night I spent camping outside Veterans Stadium for Eagles tickets, along with 5000 other drunk Philadelphians.   People were wild, starting fights, breaking into the bowels of the stadium, setting everything on fire to stay warm, and even then my friends and I were sure we were on the verge of a riot.  And if the book were a novel, it absolutely would have escalated to bloodshed.  But what happened in real life is that everyone inexplicably stopped being crazy and in the morning stood in a single file line to quietly buy their tickets and go home.  So I had to write a sad disclaimer within the chapter saying, essentially, “I know this is disappointing, but that’s what happened.” When it came to the personal stuff, that wasn’t as big an issue for me.  Initially, I had to clear the hurdle of revealing myself, but I really enjoyed the level of self-analysis required by this project.  If I’d gone with some sort of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, I think I would have been too tempted to go easy on myself, to be less revealing and less emotionally honest.  I can see how the fictional approach would be important for some writers, but for me, the only way I felt like I could do this story justice was to just lay all the facts on the line and let them speak for themselves. TM: I’ve written about my own internet message board obsession here before, and an Eagles message board plays a pretty significant role in this book (it’s the first memoir I’ve read in which a message board is a prominent setting).  How do you think the internet has changed sports fandom?  What has it offered you as a fan that you can’t get from your friends – many of whom are also Eagles fans? McAllister: As I see it, Internet sports coverage makes us more cynical.  The relentlessness of the news cycle means there's a constant pressure to expose us to every bit of corruption and stupidity in sports, the kinds of things that may have been overlooked in the past are now front page news (i.e.- a philandering athlete now somehow necessitates the use of live helicopter footage of his home, whereas it was just kind of okay for guys like DiMaggio and Mantle).  Every time someone accomplishes something remarkable, there's suspicion of performance enhancing drugs.  It's harder to be a fan who just watches the game and loves what they're seeing, because when you look out on the field, you see a quarterback with two DUIs, a halfback who cheated his way through college, a tight end with seven children in six different states, an offensive lineman who's been accused of steroid use, etc. Not that it's bad to expose corruption.  It's just very different. TM: There are a couple of moments in the book when you have a chance to meet one of the Eagles in person.  You chase [Eagles defensive back] Sheldon Brown on the freeway and run into [Eagles tackle] Tra Thomas at a Whole Foods.  But you don’t actually talk to either of them.  Do you think in the pre-internet era you might have acted differently? McAllister: I think I may have been even more reluctant to approach them, pre-internet.  There was a greater distance between player and fan then, and it was harder to view these guys as regular people.  But now you have access to all the information you could possibly want-- including athletes' Twitter and Facebook pages-- so it's not entirely unreasonable to convince yourself that you're already friends with each other, in a way. By the time I saw Tra at Whole Foods, I knew pretty much everything one could reasonably know about him: hometown, college, the size of his family, marital status, health status, religious views, and so on.  So it became easier to fall into the delusion that maybe, if I just followed along, he might want to talk to me or be my friend or something. Same deal with Sheldon-- he was my favorite player for years, so I knew even more about him than I did about Tra.  I doubt I would have been able to “know” him so well if not for all the online access.  The Internet, in this case, served to deepen my obsession and to fuel my desire to meet these guys. The only thing that held me back from actually speaking to them was my own social awkwardness, which is sometimes powerful enough to keep me from even saying hello to my neighbors when they're waving to me from across the street. TM: So has the web improved sports at all or just created this veneer of companionship? McAllister: There is a positive angle to sports coverage on the internet, because one of the big promises of the web is that you can always find a community of like-minded people.  No matter what crazy thing you're interested in, you can find someone out there who is just as interested, and who can help you to deepen your appreciation.  You can know that there's someone else out there who cares about the things you do, and who feels the same way you do when your team blows a big game.  There's an enormous comfort in that kind of knowledge.  For as lonely as it can be to be reading a message board at 2 AM, at least you've still got an outlet to talk to someone.  At least you know you're not completely alone. TM: You say that at Iowa you felt that writing didn’t offer the catharsis you hoped it would.  Do you feel any differently now that you’ve written this book and it’s out there in the world? McAllister: Surprisingly, yes.  Not so much re: my dad’s death.  I think it was just time that softened the blow on that one—we’re 7 years removed from his death now, and after a while, wounds will heal themselves, even if they do leave a scar. But the act of writing this book has been tremendously cathartic as far as my fandom goes.  I used to do everything I could to fit the obnoxious Philly fan stereotype.  I was proud of myself for hurling beer at opposing fans and generally having no regard for human decency on gameday.  I thought everyone else was crazy for not flying into a rage when the team lost, and I had no qualms about breaking bottles, punching holes in walls, sulking for weeks after a playoff loss.  But writing about it all from a distance, forcing myself to confront the reality of my behavior, I felt like I was getting that all out of my system.  I like to think I’m a rational, reasonably intelligent person, and there’s no way I could continue to think of myself like that if I wrote this book and then immediately went back to acting like a lunatic on Sundays. I finished working on it in early summer 2008, a few months before the start of football season.  I didn’t watch any preseason games or read any articles online; I detached myself almost completely, as if going into detox.  It got to the point that my wife asked what was wrong with me, and I had to explain that I was just trying to distance myself a bit. For the record, I still watch every game and still read about the team just about every day, but I do feel like I’ve found a happy medium.  It’s been a long time, for example, since I woke up on Monday morning with a football hangover, still dwelling on yesterday’s loss. TM: You talk about the inherent bias against sports in the book, and it seems to me that football is especially victimized in this regard.  It’s always been acceptable to be a baseball fan, and recently, more and more intellectuals seem comfortable with basketball, but football remains the sport of cretins in the minds of many so-called intellectuals.  How do you view the book – as a writer and as a fan – in light of what you know will be a bias?  Do you even consider this book to be a work of sports writing? McAllister: Sometimes when people ask me for a synopsis, I see them losing interest as soon as I say the word “football.”  They say, “I’m not really into football.  But my brother is!” as if that’s somehow a consolation for me.  One thing I try to do is emphasize that while football is the driving force in the book, the real heart of the memoir is about relationships and maturation.  Often, they don't believe me, and they patronize me for a bit before moving on. Despite its amazingly complex play designs and intricate strategies, football bears the stigma of being a sport for dumb brutes to run into each other arbitrarily.  Of course, football does little to combat this notion: when a player expresses outside interests, he's mocked and his priorities are questioned.  Myron Rolle probably lost out on about $5 million because he was a Rhodes Scholar, and NFL coaches didn't trust someone who seemed a little too smart. So with this stigma in mind, I’ve tried to be very clear with the publisher that I don’t want this memoir marketed as “just a sports book.”  I worried that it would be relegated to the ghetto of the sports section in the bookstore, which many serious readers avoid assiduously. There's a perception that sports writing equals bad writing.   It's not a totally unfair perception either; things sure have changed in the world of popular sports writing since the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck writing for Sports Illustrated. Do I consider this book sports writing? On one hand, sure of course it is sports writing.  On the other, it seems different from the most popular sports books on the market, which are almost entirely focused on reporting stats and facts, with little room for introspection. If pushed to categorize this book, maybe I would go with literary sportswriting? Is that a category? Maybe it should be. TM: Agreed, it should be.  I actually think it’s a great contribution to what might be called the literature of the fan (as distinct from the whiskey-infused, good-old-boy sports writing that professionals do).  I’m thinking here of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (to which you refer in the book), and even some of Bill Simmons’ early work, before he went all Hollywood.  It’s a book about the way we actual live with sports, about what it does to us and how it shapes us as people.  Where should they shelve that? McAllister: Where would they put it or where should they put it? Sometimes shelving decisions are mystifying to me.  I went to a local Barnes & Noble on my release date to see what my book looked like on an actual shelf, and I found it in the Pennsylvania section (which I didn't know existed) filed next to something about the history of rivers in PA.  About 15 feet away, there was a big display table with a sign that said “Vampire Books!” Anyway, I think the place to put something like that would be, ideally, between the Fiction/Literature section and the Non-fiction section, as kind of a bridge.  Actually, I wouldn't mind an overall revision of the way we categorize fiction and non-fiction anyway.  Not to horn in on David Shields' territory, but it seems to me that they're much more similar than we often like to admit.  Maybe I'm thinking like this because I recently read Geoff Dyer's amazing Out of Sheer Rage, which has no regard at all for traditional distinctions of fiction vs. non-fiction.  But that's all a bit ambitious, perhaps. TM: I can’t let you go without getting your take on the Donovan McNabb situation (I realize I’m now pinning you into that role of “go-to guy for Philly sports takes” that you found yourself playing in Iowa).  In the book, you argue that much of the criticism of McNabb is tinged with racism – that he’s too "uppity," etc.  At this point, do you think he’s done?  Too banged up to win?  Did the Eagles make the right choice going with Kevin Kolb as their quarterback?  (Full disclosure:  I’m both a Redskins fan and a Syracuse football fan, from back when they still played D1 football and McNabb was their star quarterback.) McAllister: I thought it was time for a change in Philly.  I was ready for the change about halfway through the ’08 season, but then they went on a totally unexpected hot streak to get to the conference championship.  When they blew it again, it should have been clear the old core wasn’t good enough to win a championship.  So last year was just more of the same, and they finally had to make a move.  I don't know if Kolb is the right replacement, or if the trade will work out in the long run, but I do think the concept of moving McNabb made sense, because it was time to close the book on that era.  He's not as good as he was-- too inconsistent, too streaky-- but still a solid NFL quarterback; definitely an upgrade for the Redskins, but not someone I think is capable of winning a championship at this point. But I don’t hate McNabb like some in Philly do-- a local sports anchor went to a Philly bar after the trade for people's reactions, and about ninety percent of the people he spoke to were giddy about the Eagles having just traded one of the best players in franchise history.  The next morning, a sports talk radio show counted down the top 10 reasons they hated McNabb as a person.  He never seemed as funny as some people said he was, and I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to meet him for happy hour, but I never got why so many people here truly despised him.  If he weren't a Redskin I would wish him well.  But since he is a Redskin, I hope he never wins again, and I get to see hundreds of shots of [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder clenching his tiny fists in impotent rage.

Sunday Thoughts and Links

I really dug this write up of a visit by Edward P. Jones to a Seattle high school, where he talked to some kids about being a writer. I'm fascinated by Jones' persona. He's not a hermit, but neither is he a part of the more public contemporary literary crowd, all of whom seem to be associated with the same causes and who enjoy this sort of literary pseudo-fame while at the same time making a bit of a show about shying away from it. Of course I'm overgeneralizing here, but I'm sure you can think of some writers who might fit that description. I suppose my larger point is Jones seems to me to be a writer who, in an earlier time, would have only achieved fame late in his career or even posthumously, and I'm just really glad that he has gotten the acclaim that he deserves.I saw the movie Fever Pitch last night and enjoyed the way last year's baseball season was woven into the story so well. It also made me very curious to read Nick Hornby's novel by the same name, in which the protagonist is a rabid soccer fan. I'm not a big Hornby fan, but I'm very curious to see if they managed to swap out the sport at the center of the story while keeping the same overall feeling. Quite a feat if they managed to do a good job of it. One thing is clear though, trying to slap a movie tie-in cover on Hornby's book wouldn't have worked very well.Rodger Jacobs has set up a blog to track entries in his "Fitzgerald in Hollywood Short Fiction Contest."Chicagoist looks at books "with local ties." I've read All This Heavenly Glory and Gods in Alabama, but the third book The Week You Weren't Here by Charles Blackstone sounds interesting.
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