Fontana is a brilliant book. And I don’t mean that solely in the intellectually brilliant sense of the word; I mean that it is also luminous and powerful, and it made me angry and it made me cry, and it’s been some time since I’ve read a book that engendered such a strong emotional reaction in me.
First, let me caution you that this book is not a romance, though it is the love story, of a sort, between a young man and the sport at which he excels, and a journalist and an extraordinary athlete, and the sport that that journalist, Jeremy Rusch, reveres. No, Fontana is literary fiction and is told in the first person from Jeremy’s POV as he covers the New York Mets for his small and struggling NYC paper, and the career of Ricky Fontana during one epic season when the twenty-year-old wunderkind held America’s pastime and, indeed, the world in the pocket of his mitt and the sweet spot of his bat.
During one memorable summer, when nearly every baseball fan’s (and many non-fan’s) attention was trained on the Mets and a young man from Rhode Island who was set to break the long standing records of two of the sport’s greatest—Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio—and doing so in a single, monumental season, Jeremy was struggling with the failure of his marriage, alcoholism, and the near anonymity of a career that would change dramatically with just one scoop, a single byline that would set him apart from his colleagues and propel him from the dregs of mediocrity. Jeremy accidentally finds that scoop in his pursuit of Ricky, and in a moment of avarice, trades his personal integrity for career gain, opening a Pandora’s Box and releasing a storm of bigotry and intolerance upon Ricky, a gay athlete. “On a warm, wet June night, I said yes.” And at that moment, the moment Jeremy Rusch traded his soul for a story, my heart broke just a little for a fictional athlete named Ricky Fontana.
In the aftermath of Jeremy’s article that thrust Ricky from the closet in which he’d so adamantly guarded his personal life, many of his once adoring fans turned viciously on the player they’d so recently worshiped. What was once the fervor of veneration becomes vilification as a national debate rages over whether homosexual athletes should be allowed to play in professional sports. Touching upon religion, politics, and the way in which the campaign to support Ricky turns every bit as ugly as the crusade to crucify him, Fontana is a glowing and glaring example of the media’s (and the public’s) twisted infatuation with the private lives of public people.
Fontana is the story of a young hero whose meteoric rise and subsequent crash back to earth, puts him in the center of a Salem-Witch-Hunt that overshadows his incredible accomplishments in the sport that means everything to him. Ricky only ever wanted to play ball, but instead becomes the poster child in the raging debate over gay athletes. In spite of his best efforts to pay for his privacy, the public ends up taking its pound of flesh in their “right to know” everything about him, and in that violation, Ricky, a man of integrity and loyalty and incredible courage, remains strong and focused and succeeds in doing what many thought was the impossible.
And then, at the age of twenty, his legend both tarnished and secure in the annals of baseball, Ricky fades into history.
Fontana is a book within a book, a story that Jeremy has written chronicling his own personal losses and triumphs, as well as those of Ricky Fontana. It is both Jeremy’s personal account of that summer, as well as a series of interviews with Ricky’s ex-lover Peter Morgenstern, that comes together in an outstanding novel that should make everyone examine the need to label and the fascination with what goes on in the privacy of a person’s bedroom.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It will be a long while before I can think about Ricky and his struggles and triumphs without a lump coming to my throat and a tear coming to my eye.
**This title will be released July 16, 2012, and can be purchased HERE.