Thursday, February 18, 2010

Billy Lombardo, author of THE MAN WITH TWO ARMS, Profiled in New City

Billy Lombardo, author of The Man With Two Arms, is profiled by Tom Lynch in Chicago's New City weekly newspaper: "Billy Lombardo strolls into The Breakfast Club on Hubbard Street fifteen minutes late, having missed his stop as he took the train into the city from his home in Forest Park. He was writing, he says, finally making progress on something new, and he wasn’t paying attention. The author, though in his forties, exudes a childlike whimsy when he laughs at his mistake—he’s apologetic, but he wears an excited, goofball sort of grin that’s apology enough. He has a lot to smile about.

Lombardo’s first novel, The Man With Two Arms, was just released by Overlook Press, a baseball book about a father who teaches his son to throw with both his left and right arms; the son becomes Major League Baseball’s first superstar ambidextrous pitcher.

Danny Granville spent almost every waking hour of his Chicago childhood learning to throw a baseball with either arm, under the strict tutelage of his father, Henry. He becomes a sort of pitching machine—a superman freak who’s capable of throwing the ball perfectly with either arm, a tremendous and unheard of asset in baseball. He works his way through the Cubs organization and quickly finds himself in the majors. Danny’s described as having the right arm of Seaver and the left arm of Koufax. Pressures follow—the spotlight, the fans, the media. While Lombardo gives Danny much more than just baseball—he loves to paint as well—he seems to throw at him much more than anyone could handle. The Man With Two Arms isn’t simply a baseball book; it’s about family, about the unique, incomparable relationship between a father and son, about survival and competition itself.

The idea started to take shape in 2003, after Lombardo was on vacation with his family in Florida, and his son, 10 at the time, started throwing a baseball around lefty with some surprising success.

But my first question to him was an obvious one, at least to me. A Bridgeport kid from a blue-collar family—how the hell did he decide his hero in his novel should be with the Cubs? Isn’t that some sort of sacrilege? Lombardo laughs. “My affiliation is with the Sox, for sure,” he says. “My son, who is more of a baseball guy, he’s nuts about the Sox, so I had some explaining to do when I decided to go with the Cubs. It was gonna be Sox, in the book, originally. But I’m dealing with a tool box that’s not quite packed yet. I don’t have the greatest tools in that yet. When I started writing the book all I had was a fucking mallet and a jeweler’s screwdriver, that’s about it.”

Then it comes out. “I didn’t know how to deal with the Sox winning the World Series. Before 2005, I was thinking Sox all the way [for the book], but then they won the Series, and I was like, I just couldn’t brush over the fact that they had won the Series. I didn’t know how to do that. But it doesn’t hurt that there are more Cubs fans in the world, too.”

After I admit I’m a Cubs fan, with only a modest amount of shame, Lombardo offers: “I also knew the Cubs weren’t going to ruin it by winning the World Series.”

The Man With Two Arms necessarily includes some intricate baseball passages, descriptions of on-the-field face-offs between pitcher and batter, the strains of the minors, training regimens. You wouldn’t know it from the book, but when he started writing, Lombardo didn’t know baseball all that well. “My understanding of baseball was really limited,” he says. “I only knew what my son knew about baseball. My son’s introduced me to it.”

He didn’t even play as a kid. “I played softball. So with this book, it wasn’t me dipping into my own life as much as I did with my other books. I didn’t go to many Sox games. My dad wasn’t a baseball fan. My friends—we played softball. I didn’t even know kids who played baseball.”

By now, Lombardo’s a baseball nut, and he has a legitimate concern that the book will alienate some readers who don’t share his passion for the sport. “It’s still a concern. It looks like a baseball book,” he says. “With How to Hold a Woman, I was just as fearful that that would appear to be a woman’s book, as I’m afraid this would appear to be a man’s book, you know? That’s why there’s so much more in there. I originally thought it was going to be a baseball novel, but I don’t think it’s a baseball novel anymore.”

Baseball, more than other sports, has this inherent ability to create sweeping sentimental narratives. This may be helped by Hollywood—think “Field of Dreams” or “The Natural”—but that’s not the sport’s fault. There’s a history, it’s a sport that’s taken personally; fathers play catch with their sons, sons learn from their fathers. America is offended—outraged!—when players take performance-enhancing drugs, yet shrug when athletes in other sports indulge as well. Baseball lends itself to melodrama.

“What’s really interesting,” Lombardo says, “is that I didn’t have that with my dad at all. He wasn’t a sports guy. He certainly participated in our lives in other ways, but our childhoods were less chaperoned than my own children’s. The first game I went to with my stepson, Carlton Fisk hit a fly ball into the stands. I had sandals on—it’s ridiculous to go to a baseball game with sandals on, I didn’t even know how to go to baseball games—and the ball ended up under my foot. I just remember him looking at that ball the whole game, and that was my first experience with father-son baseball, that was part of the joy of that thing.”

The Man With Two Arms and How to Hold a Woman have more in common than one would think—they’re both about families, about relationships between parents and children, between married couples, and how families struggle to overcome crisis."

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