“The problem with history is that every story has multiple witnesses, but no witness ever has the entire truth.” You wouldn’t dream of finding such a profound insight in a slim, 69-page memoir about a father with Alzheimer’s and a famous baseball bat. But A Drive Into the Gap (Field Notes Brand Books, 2012) , by Kevin Guilfoile, is full of these oddly insightful sentences. In short, this book is an unexpected treasure.
Guilfoile already sits on a pile of family history to make any memoir writer salivate. His father Bill worked in media relations for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970s, and later ended up being the director of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now, Bill has Alzheimer’s. The stories he loved to tell, and some he never told, are being swept away by the ravages of unstoppable disease.
As all good baseball fans know, the early 1970s were Pirate Roberto Clemente’s glory years. In 1972, the last season he played, he earned his 3,000th career hit before his life ended too soon in a plane crash. In the course of looking up his father’s old friends, Kevin unearths a story about the bat Clemente used to get that milestone hit. Bill Guilfoile vouched for the bat donated to Cooperstown, that it was the one Clemente used. But there’s another bat Clemente picked up that fateful day, and for years it sat in Kevin’s bedroom. Is the treasured keepsake the real deal?
It’s amazing how with so little space, Guilfoile brings real people to life so satisfyingly. Clemente glows with warm generosity. Barry Bonds is predictably surly. A Yankees goodwill ambassador by the name of Jackie Farrell, whose claim to fame is that he turned down a young Frank Sinatra from singing at his wrestling events—his nervous insignificance drips off the three pages devoted to his story. Even baseball yarns a few paragraphs long have pungency. Guilfoile’s skill is not lost when he moves on to the story’s other central character, his father. Short, well-chosen scenes mark his father’s decline in a sad, but matter-of-fact way.
And shot through this—again, tiny—book, are more insights about writing and truth than usually appear in works about situations more life or death than a baseball bat’s provenance. For instance, take Guilfoile’s anecdote about the time he approached his agent with an idea for a nonfiction book. His agent advises him against it. “Truth,” he says, “has a way of spinning away from you…The nonfiction writer uncovers the chaos beneath the orderly surface.” This book is supposed to be about a baseball bat—how did writing sneak in? Not pointed out in complaint—but in awe.
To this reviewer, A Drive Into The Gap stands out compared to another recent book about mystery and absent fathers, Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends. Though Hainey’s subject was weightier—the unexplained death of his journalist father and a resulting newspaper cover-up—the mystery wasn’t as well parsed, its unfolding at times clumsily handled. After Visiting Friends was almost five times longer than A Drive Into The Gap, and overall not as worthy. Guilfoile’s abbreviated form perhaps forced him into a sharper excellence that Hainey in all his pages didn’t exercise. But despite the marvels at its length peppering this review, A Drive Into The Gap clearly doesn’t feel abbreviated.
Guilfoile’s book is the first title from Field Notes Brand Books. Already justly famous for their cunningly designed, uber-useful journals, the Chicago-area Field Notes company’s taken to publishing books without blank pages (with the same great design principles). If A Drive Into The Gap is any indication of future offerings, Field Notes Brand Books will soar like a …drive into the gap.