In his excellent novel Swing, a study of loss—emotional and physical, Philip Beard weaves together the story of a boy’s love for baseball with that grown man’s life in the present. The first narrative is set in 1971 as the Pittsburgh Pirates make their legendary run to the World Series. Young Henry Graham, an 11-year old fan’s joy at his team’s performance is ruined when his father, a college teacher, leaves the family for one of his students. The depressed boy finds some support as he is befriended by an army veteran who has lost both his legs. The second narrative has the older Henry, now a novelist teaching creative writing in an upstate New York college, forced to examine his own life and family relations when he learns of the veteran’s death.
Young Henry’s narrative is presented in the first person as the boy tries to deal with his world turned upside down by the betrayal of his father. He meets the veteran who has his own loss to deal with and seems to be managing quite well. Well enough that he can take the youngster under his wing when he recognizes the boy’s anguish. The elder Henry’s story is told objectively in the third person. He is married to a breast cancer survivor. They have two children, a dog and a fish. Seemingly an idyllic family, but things are not quite what they seem. In a position that demands publication he finds himself unable to write, and to make matters worse he is being reviewed for tenure. His communication with his wife is less than optimal. He begins to feel that he can’t really trust himself.
Symbols of loss run through both narratives: the veteran’s legs and then his death, amputees that he mentors, the loss of Pirate star Roberto Clemente in a plane crash, the firing of Pirate announcer Bob Prince, pitching star Steve Blass’s loss of his ability to get the ball over the plate, Henry’s wife’s breast, his father’s leaving, the possible loss of his job if he doesn’t get tenure, his loss of his creativity, even the death of the pet fish and a similar prospect for the family’s aging dog. Some losses can be dealt with; some are catastrophic, but even one as catastrophic as the loss of both legs can be overcome.
Beard’s portrait of a boy and his love of his baseball team is spot on. His descriptions of the ’71 World Series, of the players—those that failed, and those that delivered, of the passion of the fans rooting for the underdog Pirates, of the effects on the whole of the city are both accurate and reflective of the cultural importance sports can have in American society.
But while Swing is about baseball, it is about much more than that. It uses baseball to say something about life, and dealing with loss—loss that is inevitable, loss that can be overcome.