Sport: A Novel

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Overview

Sad and funny, warm and wise, the story of a boy's search for order and belonging in a world where the rules keep changing.

Sport is a wise and wily kid with a passion for baseball. His world is suddenly, inexplicably shaken when his mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his hard-drinking father abandons them.The family quickly descends into awkward suburban poverty. Sport responds by attempting to fix the broken machinery of the household?the unpaid bills, the ...

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Overview

Sad and funny, warm and wise, the story of a boy's search for order and belonging in a world where the rules keep changing.

Sport is a wise and wily kid with a passion for baseball. His world is suddenly, inexplicably shaken when his mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his hard-drinking father abandons them.The family quickly descends into awkward suburban poverty. Sport responds by attempting to fix the broken machinery of the household—the unpaid bills, the deadbeat dad, the futility of his beloved Minnesota Twins. In his search for stability, Sport befriends his kind-hearted baseball coach, who offers him what appears to be a way out. Gradually, he comes to see the wisdom in his mother's advice to swing from the heels and hit away, to make his mistakes loud and large.

A novel of graceful insight, Sport is about the world as we wish it could be—and as it is. Sport is about learning to love the broken world.

About the Author:
Mick Cochrane is a native of St. Paul, Minnesota. His first novel was Flesh Wounds. He teaches English literature and writing at Canisius College in Buffalo, NewYork.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Growing up in St. Paul, Minn., in the 1960s, 12-year-old Harlan Hawkins ("Sport" to his father) is having a bad summer. His mother has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his alcoholic lawyer father has erupted in physical abuse and his obese, older brother, Gerard, is numbing his depression with cigarettes and alcohol. Harlan's only respite from his dismal home life is on the baseball diamond, "where miraculous comebacks were always possible, where I still knew the rules." In a spare but affecting first-person narrative, Cochrane's second novel (after Flesh Wounds) is a winning coming-of-age tale that falters only occasionally. After Harlan's father decamps and neglects to pay child support, his mother's advancing disease leaves the family home a shambles and their finances seriously impaired. Cochrane renders the conditions of Harlan's impoverished childhood with a laid-back, unpretentious grace. It's understandable that Harlan needs a means of psychological escape, which he finds in his baseball card collection ("they weren't so much things to possess as a place to be"). He also receives support from his neighbor and baseball coach, George Walker, who decides to take the boy under his wing and helps get him into a local private school on scholarship. The novel doesn't quite achieve the depth and scope it aims for: one might wish to penetrate the psyche that guides Walker's altruism, or to experience the genuine pain that lies behind Gerard's moody, embittered facade. However, obvious parallels to Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life should attract readers who will then be seduced by the unassuming richness of Cochrane's prose and his gift for subdued yet potent storytelling. (Jan. 12) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA
Harland "Sport" Hawkins loves baseball. During the summer of 1967 in St. Paul, Minnesota, his beloved Twins absorb his attention, along with his baseball card collection, which still is missing a Tony Oliva, and the team for which he plays a solid if unremarkable first base. His home life, however, has taken a turn for the worse. His mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which prompts his hard-drinking, abusive lawyer father to leave. Sport, his unhappy brother, Gerald, and his mom slide into a precarious existence—bills go unpaid, his father tries to break in while he is angry-drunk, and the house wallows in filth as his mother chain smokes, drinks warm Tab, and plays endless games of solitaire. Sport, however, maintains a positive outlook, bolstered by his baseball coach, George Walker, late night car rides with his mother, and his genuine love for his family. Cochrane's lyrical writing and closely drawn characters carry this story. The central characters, particularly Sport's mother, come alive in this tale of a dysfunctional family in a simpler time. Gritty realism that can be found in the portrayal of abusive relationships, Gerald's experiments with drugs, and the occasional four-letter words make this book better suited for older teens, but it is balanced by humor, insights on life, and Sport's pure love of baseball. This book would be certainly appropriate in a high school classroom or library as a model of fine writing and as a springboard for discussions on myriad topics from family struggles to the pursuit of the American Dream. VOYA CODES: 5Q 3P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to12; Adult and Young Adult). 2001, St. Martin's, 246p, $22.95. Ages 15 to Adult. Reviewer: Mary Ann Darby SOURCE: VOYA, February 2002 (Vol. 24, No.6)
Library Journal
Cochrane's second novel (after Flesh Wounds) is a touching tale about a boy trying to make sense of a world turned upside down. When Sport starts junior high, his mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his father abandons them, refusing to pay child support while occasionally returning to attack her. Sport's mom, who is spirited, charming, independent, and very odd, repels social workers, making their financial situation even more precarious. Sport finds refuge in school and baseball and a friend in his coach, who tries to help the family unobtrusively by offering him odd jobs and occasional gifts. But Sport understands that these are oblique criticisms of his mother, and eventually he has to choose among his loyalties. This believable, affecting coming-of-age story is recommended for all libraries.--Marylaine Block, "Librarian Without Walls," Davenport, IA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cochrane's second (after Flesh Wounds, 1997), a tale of growing up trash-poor in the Midwest, is often rich in detail, but in its psychology it remains content with too little. Harlan Hawkins is a junior high school kid in West St. Paul, Minnesota, who loves baseball, roots for the Twins, collects baseball cards, knows everything there is to know about both the game and its many players—and even plays himself, under the guidance of his kind and orderly history teacher and coach, Mr. Walker. But there's plenty on the downside of Harlan's life. A few years back, his mother developed multiple sclerosis and is now, though keeping her spiky attitudes and temperament, becoming badly degenerated from it. And now, unforgivably, his hard-drinking, short-fused, and hyperviolent father (a lawyer) walks out on the family (Harlan's brother, Gerard, is slightly older) and almost immediately stops sending support money to them. The situation is dire and gets only worse as genuine poverty closes its fingers around the necks of the family. Cochrane gets all these details absolutely right, but, at the same time, his people don't go deep or ring new. Harlan's father is so vile as to be almost a cardboard villain. His mother is feisty, cynical, and quick—the heart of the story, really—but other elements simply remain more standard. Will teenaged brother Gerard continue his downward path to dissolution (tobacco, petty theft, etc.) and ruin? Will Harlan, a bright student who's been taken under the wing of kind, good, concerned Mr. Walker, really apply to the ritzy private academy Mr. Walker himself (not quite believably) graduated from? And if Harlan does apply,willhe get in? And ifhe gets in, will he attend? Appealing in its evocations of a Midwest from two or three decades ago, but at its foundation it remains more like a YA than anything else.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816640850
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,402,973
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Mick Cochrane

Mick Cochrane is a native of St. Paul, Minnesota. His first novel, Flesh Wounds, was named a finalist in Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers Competition. He teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


On the red baseball jersey I wore the summer between seventh and eighth grade, it said WEST SAINT PAUL across the front, and on the back, in the same cheap white iron-on lettering, it read GUS LUND across the shoulders, with a big number 13 in the middle, and on the bottom, OIL. It was a big shirt and I was a skinny kid, so the bottom of OIL tended to get tucked in. At a time when major league ballplayers were beginning to wear their names on their backs, it would be natural to think that the player wearing that jersey was named Gus Lund. Gus was a good baseball name, I'd always thought—much better than my real name, Harlan, which always sounded to me like the name of a professional bowler or an obscure vice president—and when it became a kind of nickname for me among my teammates, I didn't mind. "Come on you Gus," my buddies would holler from the bench when I'd step up to the plate. "Show 'em where you live." Actually, our team was sponsored by the Smith-Dodd Businessmen's Association, and each businessman got himself one of our players to use as a kind of human billboard: Lou Chimera was Dodway Barbers, Marty Hauser was Ed's Mel-O-Glaze Bakery, Eddie Doyle was Jim's Meats, and I was Gus Lund Oil.

    Gus Lund was the man who came to our house every six weeks or so during the winter—in Minnesota, that's November through April—and brought fuel for our ancient and hugely inefficient furnace. He'd pull up in his truck and fill the tank, standing there patiently in the cold, stamping his feet and exhaling big cloudy bursts of smoky breath, just like a guy pumpinghis own at a Mobil station. When he was done, he stuck the bill in the door and drove off. I don't remember anything else about him. He was just a grown-up guy who performed a function, like the doctor or the mailman. He wore a fur cap with earflaps. I remember the tremendous furrow the hose made in the snow as he dragged it from his truck in the alley to the back of the house, like the tread of a prehistoric snake.

    My life away from baseball, meanwhile, had grown unspeakably strange, like a dream you remember as you tell it over breakfast butt break off because it's just too far-fetched, too embarrassing. Two years before, when I was in fifth grade, my mother, bedeviled by inexplicable falls and blurred vision and numbness in her hands and feet and phantom burning sensations, underwent a battery of tests—I can remember being afraid of the sound of the phrase "spinal tap"—and had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She announced this to my older brother Gerard and me during the first and only family meeting we ever held. Sitting at our Formica kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a smoldering Pall Mall, she pronounced the name of her condition with a kind of reverent dread, a mixture of horror and pride.

    "Things are going to change around here," she said.

    When she dropped things now, it wasn't funny anymore. Every spill meant something, and if she tripped, her fall foreshadowed some unspoken, inevitable misery. Our neighbor's Aunt Madge had MS, too. We used to watch as Mr. Whelan carefully unloaded her from the car when she'd arrive for holiday visits, settled her in a wheelchair, bundled and propped her with shawls and blankets, and bumped her awkwardly up the porch steps. She was blind and drank through a straw with desperate breathy gasps as someone held her glass. Bedsores were a problem, and going to the bathroom was complicated and unpleasant.

    What my father was like before my mother got sick, I can hardly remember. He was a trial lawyer, a hard drinker, inclined at home to quiz us over dinner about current events and to argue with my mother using elaborate accusatory gesticulations—courtroom flourishes, presumably—that my brother imitated flawlessly behind his back. "Is it not true?" Gerard would ask, pointing his pudgy finger at me like a conductor's baton, brandishing it like a switchblade, waving and wagging it in the air, finishing always with an emphatic corkscrew.

    What I remember best are the accessories of my father's job: the long yellow pads, a battered leather briefcase with a broken clasp, a drawer full of laundered white shirts, which we would plunder for the cardboard. And I remember particular acts of violence marked by scars in our house like commemorative plaques: the time he smashed a plate of spaghetti against the kitchen wall or gouged the plaster with the telephone or kicked out the bathroom door or nicked a cupboard with a highball glass.

    My mother's disease did not make my father heroic or nice or even sane. He stayed downtown later and later, drank more, shouted more. He began to direct his violence at human targets. On Thanksgiving the year before, my brother and I were in the kitchen playing a board game, Stratego, while my parents argued in the living room. The Lions game was on the television, and my father, who'd slept most of the day, was getting louder and louder. Gerard and I listened and stared silently at the red and blue pieces, the mustached spies, the colonels with their extravagant plumed hats, the hidden bombs. We heard a crack, a fleshy explosion, and then a gasp and a dull thud. When we scrambled into the room, we saw him standing over my mother and our springer spaniel Heston, his head lowered, circling him, growling and snarling. My mother was flat on her back, bleeding from the nose and mouth.

    "Leave me alone," she said, and my father turned and walked away. I put the dog outside and Gerard got some ice.

    Early the next morning, my father packed a suitcase and disappeared quietly into a taxi cab. I heard the front door slam and looked down from my bedroom window as he put his bag in the trunk and eased into the backseat. Gerard, still half-asleep in the bottom bunk, a big blanketed mass, asked me what was going on. I understood in my gut exactly what was happening, but I didn't know what to call it. I didn't know the words.

    "Nothing," I said. "Shut up."

    Papers were filed, child support ordered, visitation negotiated, and a divorce decreed. But after one month—one tense visit to the zoo, one check—it all stopped, as if having fulfilled his obligation once, my father saw no need to repeat it. And so, despite my mother's sporadic efforts to secure legal redress—she'd spend a morning on the telephone, mostly on hold, and eventually dissolve into tears of frustration—we descended abruptly into a kind of poverty that in our middle-class neighborhood seemed to be a social blunder, an affront to propriety, like a loud stereo or a junked car or a ragged lawn, an act of bad taste, not something anyone would talk about or be so rude as to notice. My mother cashed the AFDC check across town, and having bought one bundle of food coupons, couldn't bring herself to use them.

    Things got disconnected, turned off. Like the telephone. So we hoarded dimes and jogged up to the booth at the corner and left that space on the school forms blank, like you forgot to fill it in. One day a fellow jumped off an orange city truck and planted a spade in our front lawn and had his hand on the water valve before my mother headed him off at the curb with a handful of singles she pilfered from my brother's newspaper collection shoe box. When they came for the car, I was sitting on the front steps listening to a Twins game on a transistor radio. The repo man, a fat guy in plaid slacks, waved to me from the street and asked me what the score was, and then he got in our family Ford and drove it away. Just like that.

    A sympathetic neighbor gave my mother a work-at-home project: assembling his company's manuals for vending machine repair. For weeks we lived among stacks and stacks of photocopied diagrams and schematics, exploded views and numbered bolts and tables of specs, spread across the dining room table, on the chairs, the piano bench, on top of the refrigerator. We all worked at it spasmodically, but there was a page missing, and another got misplaced, and it was boring, and things toppled and got spilled, and finally we dumped it all in big cardboard boxes and stashed them down the basement.

    Gerard brought home two gallons of yellow paint and a roller from Coast-to-Coast one afternoon and took a few swipes in the living room and then lost interest. Weeds grew in the front yard. We ate food out of boxes and cans, standing up. My mother bought a three-pronged metal cane at a garage sale and slept a lot. Heston ran away and got hit by a car; we found him one morning at the curb, wrapped in a bloody bedspread. Something terrible was happening and I had no idea what to do about it.

    Meanwhile I went off to school, and like my brother, a bright enough kid, made A's on my schoolwork. I solved word problems with one and two variables, memorized vocabulary words and used them dutifully in sentences, constructed a beautifully layered model of the earth's atmosphere with glue and clay and food coloring, like a fancy parfait. I was a polite and well-behaved twelve-year-old, the kind of student teachers say is a pleasure to have in class. But after school, in the afternoon, I would walk home very, very slowly. I'd stop at Muller's Drugs and read comic books, watch them unload vegetables at Applebaum's, pet the Griffins' collie through their Hurricane fence. Home at last, I'd take a deep breath on the porch and one last look around before stepping through the front door, like somebody about to dive underwater.

    Once I tried to organize the wicker basket my mother devoted to our family's finances. I must have believed that if I could only bring some order there, it would begin to set things right somehow. It was a rat's nest of papers, mostly old bills, gas and electricity and telephone and water and insurance and JCPenney and Sears and Standard Oil, many of them still in coffee-stained envelopes, unopened. There were canceled checks and bank statements and overdraft notices and collection letters, one less understanding and more demanding than the last; exotically colored food stamps like foreign currency; and a paper-clipped bundle of grocery store coupons neatly clipped from the Sunday supplement for Shredded Wheat and toaster waffles and orange juice, all of them expired. And there were at least half a dozen invoices from Gus Lund, each one written in the awkward scrawl of a man wearing gloves, recording the date and number of gallons pumped, and in the amount due box, a short horizontal line.

    I should say now that I appreciated this, this coincidence, or irony, or whatever it was, that this small businessman who put my beloved baseball shirt on my back was the same man who kept my house warm and, with that little horizontal line, showed me a glimpse of forgiveness and generosity in that bucketful of adult complexity and indifferent insistence.

    I should, but it's not true. This is the truth: I gave up and piled everything back in that basket and tried my best to forget about it, tried to believe that all would be well. And then in May, I tried on the jersey our coach, Mr. Walker, tossed at me after practice, wrinkled and smelling of mothballs, and I wore it with unthinking delight every Tuesday and Thursday that summer on the ball diamond, where miraculous comebacks were always possible, where I still knew the rules.

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