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Joseph Bien-Kahn

Illness Ends a Career, Spurs Another: Q&A with ‘Hard to Grip’ Author Emil DeAndreis

EmilDeAndreisEmil DeAndreis’s memoir, Hard to Grip (310 pages; Schaffner Press), is delivered in five stages, which is fitting, because in many ways this book of baseball and chronic illness is a grief memoir. DeAndreis begins jubilantly with his story of a promising high school career, becomes absurdist when he arrives at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and then takes a sharp, dark turn as he is confronted with an unlikely diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. DeAndreis, 23 and preparing to pitch professionally in Belgium, must reckon with the end of his career because of a disease that most commonly affects middle-aged women. The writer, who is now a College of San Mateo professor as well as the author of a novel, must break down and rebuild his value system—he can no longer find his self-worth in toughness or physical strength; it hurts to even make a smoothie at Jamba Juice. The second half of Hard to Grip is about denial, anger, and eventual acceptance as DeAndreis mourns the loss of the game that defined his life.

I met DeAndreis when he was 17, and I was 14—a freshman at the same high school of which he was the star baseball player. San Francisco’s public school league is far from elite, and DeAndreis accurately portrays himself as a big fish in a small pond. But at 14, that pond was an ocean for me. DeAndreis, like many other ex-players, seemed destined for greatness—and then, like almost every other player, returned home. I understood, vaguely, that his arm had failed him. I never knew the failing was a chronic illness that altered his life far beyond sports.

Though DeAndreis’s career was unexpectedly taken from him so early, the fact is that every athlete faces the moment he or she can no longer play. DeAndreis writes at one point about a conversation he has with the players he coaches today. They ask him what it’s like to not play baseball anymore. He tells them “it’s like a disease you learn to live with.” They understand, as does the reader, that everyone eventually loses the game.

ZYZZYVA spoke with DeAndreis about the way chronic illness pushed him from the pitcher’s mound to the classroom and the world of writing.

ZYZZYVA: I know you started to work on Hard to Grip right when you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. A lot of the book is about accepting this nasty twist of fate, but what was it like to write about the experience right as it was happening?

Emil DeAndreis: Writing after the diagnosis was all I could do—I just lied to everyone about the disease at the time. I was not honest about it, because I didn’t want the sympathy. As a 23-year-old, that was the last thing I wanted. You are now weaker. You are helpless. You are harmless. You are all these things. Now it’s been so long that I don’t even care. But finishing the book was that closure.

The narrative arc of this book is the narrative arc I experienced. I was writing this since 2011 when I was 24 and when I turned 30 I was still writing the book. In the course of a life, it’s a small window of time. But so much change happens for anyone in that time.

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Troubled & Young, But That’s O.K.: Adam Wilson’s ‘What’s Important Is Feeling’

What's Important Is FeelingWhat’s Important Is Feeling (Harper Perennial, 198 pages), the new collection of short stories by Adam Wilson, begins with a few lines from Denis Johnson’s poem “Enough”: “as if we held in the heavens of our arms/not cherishable things, but only the strength/ it takes to leave home and then go back again.”

The push and pull of home—the fear of arriving unchanged, still incomplete—is an ever-present theme throughout Wilson’s fiction. His first novel, Flatscreen, told the story of Eli Schwartz, a stoner in his early 20s who lives at his parents’ house in a ritzy Massachusetts suburb, a young man without the drive to leave or to interact with the world. Many of the protagonists in What’s Important Is Feeling are similarly glum, dark-humored, and pill-addicted, but Wilson succeeds as he did in Flatscreen in giving them depth.

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A Black Family’s Fantastical Cuban History: Carlos Acosta’s ‘Pig’s Foot’

Pig's FootGünter Grass begins his magical realist masterpiece The Tin Drum by explaining that “no one ought to tell the story of his life who hasn’t the patience to say a word or two about at least half of his grandparents before plunging into his own existence.” In Pig’s Foot (Bloomsbury, 333 pages), Carlos Acosta’s first novel (translated by Frank Wynne), the narrator more than abides by this advice. Pig’s Foot is the story of the narrator, told from the very beginning, when his great-great-grandmother arrives as a slave in Cuba in the 1800s. Acosta’s novel, set in a remote and muddy town and among a large family, is the tale of all of Cuba as well as just one man.

Oscar Mandinga, a black Cuban and the last surviving member of his family, is living in Havana in 1995. But as his grandfather tells him, “No man knows who he is until he knows his past, his history, the history of his country.” Acosta frames the story as  the dialogue from Oscar’s interrogation by Commissioner Clemente, a doctor and alleged Grand Wizard of the Cuban branch of the Ku Klux Klan. This narrative framing allows for a mythical rendition of Cuba’s history which always remains rooted in reality. As we hear a master storyteller relate the past as it was told to him, we’re aware of a fog between Oscar’s words and actuality. But this is good, because the fog allows Acosta to play tricks.

Oscar begins by telling the history of Pata de Puerco, the town with so few people that “it seemed like the last place God made.” In the 1850s, a family of powerful slave traders moved in, and with them, seven thousand African slaves. Oscar’s great-great-grandparents are among the slaves, who are soon freed, and from there we follow their lineage through time. His family is present during the Ten Year War, the Mob years, the Castro years and present in so much more of Cuba’s history—always involved but never central in the action. Even as we learn about the slave trade, the revolutions, and other formative moments in the creation of what we know as Cuba, the novel is always centered on this one family and this one town.

There are obvious similarities here to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which also tells a wider history through one remote and isolated town. But unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, which centers on the effects of outside influence and the loss of the old world, in Acosta’s novel slavery and its aftermath are the central themes. Cuba’s treatment of its black population has always been a key part of its history, and Acosta recognizes as much. Like their fellow black Cubans, the Mandingas are both essential and marginalized, and by understanding their role in the island’s history, we better understand Cuba as a whole. As Fidel Castro, who is noticeably absent from Pig’s Foot, said about Cuba in a 1977 speech, “We are not only a Latin American nation, we are an Afro-American nation also.” Acosta does a wonderful job expanding that idea in his intriguing first novel.

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The Inescapable Presence of the Border, and the Desert: Don Waters’s ‘Sunland’

Sunland Sid Dullaney, the protagonist of Don Waters’s first novel, Sunland (University of Nevada Press; 200 pages), is thirty-three, newly single, and unemployed. He has moved from Massachusetts back to his hometown of Tucson to care for his widowed grandmother. Nana lives in Paseo del Sol, an old folks’ home Sid struggles to afford. To pay the exorbitant cost, he starts making runs across the border to buy her medication, and gradually, medications for almost all of Paseo del Sol’s residents. “I began introducing myself to Nana’s neighbors and friends, showing off my best smile. The business, born from necessity, grew.”

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Lessons in the Fictional Life of a Substitute Teacher: Q&A with Emil DeAndreis

Emil DeAndreis (photo by Sam Lowther)

Emil DeAndreis (photo by Sam Lowther)

For the last four years, Emil DeAndreis has been substitute teaching while he completes his MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. Educated in San Francisco’s public schools, DeAndreis never dreamed of being a sub, but the position has granted him an intriguing view of the classroom and the current state of learning. His new collection of short stories, Beyond Folly (Bluecubiclepress.com; 150 pages) is a hilarious, brooding, and sometimes frightening portrait of the life of the substitute in the city today.

Beyond Folly follows 27-year-old substitute Horton Haggardy on nine different assignments—from librarian to AP English teacher to Computer Lab Specialist—for which he is always under-prepared and sometimes overmatched. Initially, Horton gets into substitute teaching so he can have time to work on his poetry after college: “It was a great job for someone in a transition period; only, he had been transitioning now for years.” Still struggling to be published, and writing less, Horton now must face his vanishing youth, the unlikelihood of his dream being fulfilled, and the fact that no one ever plans to become a career sub.

I met DeAndreis almost ten years ago, when we both were students at Lowell High School, and last spring, we coached the Lowell baseball team to a city championship. We talked about his work over coffee at a small café in the Outer Sunset.

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