From Pulitzer Prize finalist Mark Di Ionno comes the next Great American Novel about the Great American Pastime—The Natural with echoes of Ford, Updike, DeLillo and Roth—two men from disparate worlds and their search for what constitutes a meaningful life in a searing portrait of honor and masculinity, sport and celebrity, marriage and parenthood.
Joe Grudeck is a living legend—a first-ballot Hall of Famer beloved by Boston Red Sox fans who once played for millions under the bright Fenway lights. Now, he finds himself haunted by his own history, searching for connection in a world that’s alienated the true person behind his celebrity facade. He’ll step back into the spotlight once more with a very risky Cooperstown acceptance speech that has the power to change everything—except the darkness in his past.
Horace Mueller is a different type altogether—working in darkness at a museum blacksmith shop and living in a rundown farmhouse on the outskirts of Cooperstown, New York. He clings to an anachronistic lifestyle, fueled by nostalgia for simpler times and a rebellion against the sport-celebrity lifestyle of Cooperstown, struggling to bring his baseball prodigy son to his side.
Gods of Wood and Stone is the story of these two men—framed by the lens of baseball, a timeless, but strikingly singular tale of the responsibilities of manhood and the pitfalls of glory in a painful and exhilarating novel that’s distinctly American.
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About the Author
Mark Di Ionno is a lifelong journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is a front-page columnist for The Star-Ledger, and its online partner nj.com. He began his career as a sportswriter for the New York Post. He is an adjunct professor of journalism at Rutgers University and a single father of six children. He lives in New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
The guy came unnoticed because all eyes were on Joe Grudeck.
But Grudeck saw movement in the far periphery of his catcher’s eyes. He knew the geometry of throwing angles and running lines; he knew the large man moving fast against the oblique light of the white tent would get to the stage before anyone could stop him.
The guy was bootlegging something; when he saw it was a sledgehammer and not a gun, he decided to stand his ground. Joe Grudeck, tough as a lug nut. That’s how a Globe writer once described him.
The guy vaulted on stage and went right for Grudeck’s bronze plaque. The 12-pound sledge bounced off, leaving a deep dent in bronzed Red Sox hat on Grudeck’s likeness. The second swing came from the heels with the fluid grace of a practiced arc; chin tucked, big shoulders and hips rotating as one, arms extended but tight. The hammer head hit the bronze Grudeck’s throat, shooting off sparks and leaving a jagged fracture down middle. The plaque fell to the stage in two pieces, the crash reverberated through the audience, silent in a collective gasp.
This guy was no terrorist, Grudeck thought. No crazy fan. He was dressed oddly, like a mountain man, but he sure knew how to wield that stick. Grudeck didn’t waste time to thinking who or why, it was go-time and the competitive rage that made him a star of several Basebrawl DVDs took over. It’s why the fans called him Joe Grrreww, like a growl. So here we go, he thought, another SportsCenter clip.
He shoved the podium over. The sheets of his speech, fluttered down. The full water glass bounced on the stage floor, leaving a large puddle. The microphone came down with a feedback shriek. The piercing sound fed Grudeck’s blood-rush anger,
like flint igniting a grill pent up with propane. Whoosh! Grudeck charged and tried to tackle him, but the guy sprawled back and his fists came down on Grudeck’s head and neck —one, two, three, four— like a sock full of nickels. Grudeck got a buzz in his ears, like the static hum from power lines at night when all else was quiet. Five, six, seven. The punches connected like an ax on dead wood and Grudeck’s neck felt rubbery. He slid on the wet floor and went to one knee, stuck under the guy’s weight, helpless. He took in air deep and got a noseful of the guy’s body odor; stale sweat, firewood smoke, and something oily, like gasoline.
Grudeck gasped and coughed, and felt his thighs involuntarily quiver from muscle fatigue. So this is what weak in the knees feels like, he thought. A lifetime of leaving blood and guts on the field and Grudeck never before felt his knees go weak. He wondered if his pants, now sticky with sweat and spilled water, were hanging off his ass. He was afraid of how comic, how stupid, he looked. With his next breath he pulled in the guy’s legs and drove up, and they both fell straight back, quaking the stage floor when they fell. Now Grudeck was on top and straddled the guy, set to strike down, but the guy got hold of Grudeck’s throat with both hands. Grudeck tried to punch, but couldn’t get through the guy’s arms. So, he too, went for the throat, and their arms intertwined like cable strands on a suspension bridge. It was then that Grudeck felt the guy’s true strength. He pushed Grudeck up with scary, surprising ease. Grudeck dug his fingers into the guy’s throat, but the guy only dug deeper. Grudeck fought to breathe and swallow. He felt a stab under his skull and his arms tingled and went weak. But then came more arms, these in blue sleeves were there to rescue. Then came a billy club pressed against the guy’s throat, another across his chest. He let go, hands up in surrender. Cops picked up Grudeck and hustled him away; his shaky legs just went for the ride.
Then there was a woman in white. “You okay, Mr. Grudeck?” He had that tin-can taste of blood in his mouth; he was put in a chair. “Mr. Grudeck?” He felt water running behind his eyes, closed them, then saw the bleeding blue daylight, and opened them quick to make it stop.
Grudeck watched the cops lead the guy out. Young men pushed through women and children and overturned chairs to get closer, throwing balled-up programs and plastic cups at him. The staid induction ceremony was history. The crowd was now part of the evening news. Violent, unexpected news; cell phones recording it from all angles.
Now chairs went airborne. Two cops broke from the phalanx, nightsticks at chest-level, but the mob engulfed them. The fans came in tight, fingers like daggers in the guy’s face, screaming curses.
Grudeck’s mother was led to him. Sal, his agent, on one side, two Hall security guards on the other.
“Are you all right, Joey?” She sounded like she was in a fish tank. “This crazy world ... I don’t understand,” she said, taking his face in both hands.
Grudeck looked back at the crowd and saw the bat, a bobbing mast on a roiling sea of chaos. It was his, a genuine Joe Grudeck model, red-wine stained ash, high in the air. It made Grudeck think of the gleaming silver crucifix he held high, arms above his head, when he was an altar boy at St. Joe’s, leading the Mass procession.
His heart banged harder at the thought of his life flashing by. He saw a young first aid worker step in front of his mother, her white uniform glowing. Angel of Mercy. He saw two girls bathed in dawn-light, longhaired angels limping out of his dark motel room. Silhouettes in the doorway. One had her panties balled up in her fist, the other trying to snap her jeans, tear-streamed mascara on their faces.
Is that what this is about? Grudeck thought. After all these years. His Induction Day, fucked up. His Hall plaque, busted. His speech, never delivered, never recorded for posterity, in a puddle of spilled water, ink running. Tear-streamed mascara.
“Mr. Grudeck ... Mr. Gru ...” it was the girl in white, voice far away in the upper deck.
He saw his bat, blood-red, waving crazily, now at the head of the procession, and then, like a whip, he saw it come down hard on the big guy’s head, the sickening crack of wood on skull. The big guy staggered but stayed on his feet. Tough as a lug nut, Grudeck thought. You had to admire the bastard. The big guy twisted away from the blow and looked back at Grudeck. Mutual respect. Blood ran down his face in one jagged stream, and dripped off his chin. Again Grudeck flashed to St. Joe’s, the painting of Christ bleeding from the crown of thorns, near the entry where he led the boys in from recess, sweaty and laughing, ties and shirttails everywhere.
This was not good. He was drifting away.
“Mr. Gruuu ...” A translucent green mask on his face, the red stretcher straps tight on his chest, the muted wail of the ambulance siren. He saw the IV bag, and felt the needle go in his arm. Catcher’s eyes, still taking it all in, blurred.
The ceiling lights of the ER, the brown face of the doctor. But then the runny, bloody bright blue color of daylight sky came back, and it all got too bright. Everything got whirly, like the lights at Fenway the night he got beaned, only spinning faster.
He was in and out, like airplane sleep, all those road trips. He felt a heavy hand on him, moving a blanket. He heard the bouncing blip of a machine turn to one steady note, the curtain ripped back, hurried feet squeaking the linoleum floor. He heard the words swelling and cerebral as his clothes were cut with scissors. He was powerless to object. In and out, paralyzed. So, so tired. He tried to see Stacy’s face, she should have been here, he thought. Then there were more lights, round like those at the ballpark but right up close, blinding bright, bleaching everything white. Another needle in the arm, everything dissolved. And he was gone.
Each morning in the black before the Lake Ostego dawn, Horace Mueller took his hands out from under the “Odd Feller” quilt Sally’s mother made them as a wedding gift 20-some years before. The cold air felt like ice on a bruise. Horace was not a religious man, not in the church-kneeling way. But there in the dark he prayed silently to calm the turbulence in his head. “Thank you God, for letting me wake another day, whether it brings sorrow or joy. And continue to guide me, Lord, to who I am, and what I stand for.”
He would lie still and recite those words until he felt a presence; a warm visit in his chest that always made him think of glowing embers of a dying fire suddenly fueled by a gust of fresh air, rekindling. It was God, partnering in his existence, urging him to take on another day.
And then Horace went to work on his hands. He did manual labor, and they hurt, every morning, in some way. Sometimes it was arthritic grating of the knuckles. Sometimes it was nerve numbness burning his palms. Either way, he had to work them back to use. He flexed and extended them, stretching tendons and ligaments, feeling metacarpal bones rise and fall beneath his skin. He bent his fingers back, pulling the skin on callused palms. He cracked each knuckle; the small ones made a snapping sound like twigs underfoot, the fist knuckles made a deeper crack, like bat on ball.
Then it was time to get up, and throw an armful of logs into the wood stove. This was Horace’s winter ritual: the dawn warming of his drafty farmhouse, circa 1910. It was a head-first dive into a frigid lake.
On this morning, after a few minutes of hand yawning, Horace put them back under the blanket. The pattern of muslin patches rose and fell as he moved his hands — an invading army under the cloak of cloak — until they found their target: the bunched-up hem of Sally’s nightshirt gathered just below her behind. He went under it, then approached the waistband of her flannel pajama bottoms, deftly as he could. He knew his touch was rough; cracked calluses irritated her skin, soft as when they met at Cornell. Horace tried to file them down with an emery board, but it only scuffed the hardened skin, creating little needles that scratched Sally like cat claws. He tried to soften his hands with Sally’s moisturizing cream, but it only left his skin plump and vulnerable to the next day’s labor; a failed marriage of a woman’s lotion and a working man’s hands.
Horace pressed into her, sliding the nightshirt up over the guitar curve of her hip, trying to draw her warmth. He listened as the frigid lake winds leaked through the weathered clapboard siding; the kind of dry cold that sucked moisture out of wood, making the coals in the wood-burning stove burn hotter and faster. He had to get up and get the fire going. But first ... He arched his back like a waking lion, pushing himself into the humid crevice of Sally’s underside. Sally stirred, and backed into Horace with a slight twitch, the faint promise of intimacy. Somewhere, somewhere in her sleep, she remembers, Horace thought. He cupped her butt, and pushed forward, leading with his erection, which parted her thighs and ran the full width of her flesh. He reached around her and grabbed the head, and nestled it against the silky fabric of her panties.
Back in college, Horace’s favorite time was the heavy-lidded mornings, when Sally woke him with a tug, or her lips. She would fall into him, with that skinny, little body. Thin, but strong, the kind of woman that never falls out of shape. Horace would sink into her tenderness. Once there, he tried to lessen his weight. He held himself off Sally the best he could, staying up on his elbows. She would rise up to him, and accept him into her body.
After he became the blacksmith, things changed. He tried to keep his rough fingers off her skin, caressing her head and hair, using just his mouth on her breasts, shoulders, neck, face and ears, unaware his beard irritated her. Sometimes weeks went by. After Michael was born weeks became months, months became half years. Colicky as a baby, and needing Mommy’s middle-of-the night comfort as a toddler, Michael was between them so much Horace nicknamed him the “Human Chastity Belt.” He was almost five when she finally removed him from their bed. But then Sally was afraid their noises, heard through the thin walls of the farmhouse, would wake him. She had a harder and harder time relaxing, and Horace had a harder and harder time convincing her it was all right. And now that she was working out four times a week at a fitness club, well, it reminded Horace of the old saying about boxers who stale by fight time. “They left it in the gym.”
So now, on this cold January morning, Horace moved into her ... if only to prove he was ready.
“Don’t Horace,” she said when his prodding woke her. “It’s too early. And cold. I’m always cold. Did you stoke the fire, yet?”
“I wish to God we’d put more real heat in this house. It gets colder every year.”
“I wish to God you let me warm you up,” Horace wanted to say, but instead squeezed himself out from underneath the covers to not let more cold air in. On quick went the flannel shirt, long johns and Wigwams he kept piled on the frayed rush twine chair next to the bed. He tiptoed down the hall barely wide enough to contain his shoulders. The wide-plank floors cried under his weight. He re-loaded the stove from the small indoor stack, the wood bone dry, warm and ready to burn, and then went out the back door, to get more from the porch cord. The outside air was nature’s cold shower; it shrank his nuts and killed his erection. It was no use to him, anyway. The hard, splintery edges of the split logs dug into his skin, and brought new pain to his hands. Just once, he wished his son, now fourteen, would get his lazy ass out of bed and do this. The kid had no problem getting up for early practices in whatever sports season it was. But chores? Or old-fashioned work? Forget it.
Horace stoked the fire, and it spit a few embers on to the floor, which Horace snuffed with his feet. He shut the furnace door and stood, warming his hands, admiring his piece of cast iron Americana. He found it a couple of summers ago, at an estate sale in a Cooperstown Victorian was being converted to a B & B. It was rusting away in the garage, junked long ago when oil heat was put in. Horace saw it as a restoration project for Michael and him. They’d move it home, strip off rust, sand metal back to silver bone, then black-coat it back to good use. But it was baseball season then, and Michael was too busy practicing or playing. After school. Weekends. Always.
So Horace did it alone, like most things these days. He pivoted it from the garage, moving leg by leg, then tilted it into the back of his old Ford Escort wagon. The 489-pounds of cast iron pancaked the car’s rear suspension, which creaked and cursed all the way home. It was backbreaking, for car and man. The whole time he was busting his nuts, he cursed Sally for not making Michael help. Mikey had a Legion Ball practice, then Babe Ruth practice. God forbid he miss.
“What’s more important? Helping his father on the rare day he really needs it, or going to yet one of another million sports practices,” Horace argued.
“What’s more important to him, is the question,” Sally said. “Not what’s more important to you.”
That was always the question, and the answer Sally enforced bitterly defined Horace’s fatherhood.
Horace stood in the dark, the room lit only by fire glow peeking through the furnace grates. He warmed and flexed his blacksmith’s hands, the palm lines indelibly darkened with the dirty gray stains of bituminous coal. Coal shoveled into the hearth, ash shoveled out, just part of a strongman’s work; wielding hammers and pressing bellows and stacking pig iron. His was a lost, ancient craft, with roots older than written history and tools invented in the smoky dawn of civilization. He was an authentic blacksmith; and had the aches to prove it. But he was also an actor, “a living historian” as they said down at Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, and an educator. The smithy was first stop on the recreated village tour. Sparks flew and hammers rang as Horace forged a new horseshoe for groups of scouts, senior citizens or kids on class trips and delivered this soliloquy.
“The blacksmith is a living reminder of a day when strength and function were inseparable; whenever and wherever God’s great beasts were domesticated to do heavy work, the blacksmith was the man who kept them pulling, and in the process, forged himself into a beast of a man.
“From the discovery of flint and coke and iron, the blacksmith was the strong man who understood earth’s metals and minerals, who carried the world forward on his broad shoulders. He was the first to understand the abundance of these God-given gifts in the earth, the first metallurgist, the first maker of weapons, the father of heavy industry, the grandfather of all technology. From the horseshoe to the iron-banded wagon wheel, it was the blacksmith who helped push mankind’s transportation forward. From the ancient Hittite blacksmiths came Damascus steel, and the ‘smith became the swordsmith and, then, the gunsmith. The blacksmith is ancient, but he endured, because he is the epitome of self-reliance. And here, at the Farmer’s Museum, you will see the self-reliant family farm, the self-reliant rural village, the self-reliant America, the one of work and prayer. One that should not be forgotten.”
He delivered this with theatric enthusiasm, reveling in his role of eccentric throwback. He was the star of the village. Anyone could dress up and play chicken farmer, milkmaid or preacher, or run the apothecary or general store, but Horace put on a show. He made flames leap, like magic, from lumps of black coal, then played in that fire with gloved or bare hands. Horace, the giant, the circus strongman, clanged his heavy tools off red-hot metal with delight. With his dark hair long, his face perpetually tanned and leathered by the constant heat of the forge, Horace saw himself as a mythic figure, the revered subject of Longfellow’s ode, an American working strongman like Paul Bunyan or John Henry. He was hardened from the years of wielding heavy tools. At 45, with shoulders broad, chest and abdomen firm, arms and legs thick and sculpted, he never felt physically stronger. The smith, a mighty man is he. He could snap a quarter-inch strand of pig-iron over his knee, walk a 500-pound anvil across his shop floor, and work an easy eight hours chopping wood or banging out steel. He moved the Glenwood by himself and had to replace two porch stairs at home that splintered under the weight of him and stove. And yet all that muscle could not beat back the encroaching despair that his family, his country, and all the things he wanted to think true, were slipping away. So he prayed for purpose, and fought the good fight.
Horace Mueller’s hands weren’t always black. He had a double master’s in history and rural sociology from the Ag school at Cornell, but the degree certificates were merely paper extensions of what he learned at home. His grandfather was the last of the New York State hops farmers, and his father tried running an Empire apple orchard, but eventually went to work in tool-and-die for a Syracuse company that made intricate locking mechanisms for bank safes. Competition from Asia drove the company to the brink, saved only by defense contracts. But hatch molds for Navy ships did not require the art of tool-and-die, and Horace’s father was let go, into early retirement. Now here was Horace, the next chapter in a family narrative of changing American economy: rural to industrial to information, though Horace was proud he delivered his the old-fashioned way; not through the Internet. Face to face. Americans should know where they came from, he sang out to visitors over the ringing echo of hammers. And know how to grow their own food and make their own goods. Self-sufficiency is a lost art, but you never know when we’ll have to go back, he said with wry humor. Not with these days of killer storms and tidal floods, and a financial industry that could come crashing down at any moment, like some hollowed-out, termite -infested oak. Cash could dry up. Food distribution could come to a halt. Then what?
Now Horace let the heat from the stove all but scorch his hands and melt the stiffness. This was the most peaceful moment of his day, and his own excuse for not making Michael get up. Alone, with the glow, in a silent room still dark but now warm. He pulled up a chair and sat, his feet stretched to toward the stove, and closed his eyes. This was the life he wanted; simple, with quiet time to pause and reflect. Contemplate. Dream. Be in touch with his spirit, not run from it. He took a few deep breaths, letting his chest expand with air touched by a hint of smoke.
The abrupt sound of the TV from Michael’s bedroom killed it. All the years Sally muzzled their sex and now he was over there, TV cranked loud enough to drown out a Roman orgy. It was the morning all-sports highlight show, high-pitched, high-drama, high-volume.
Horace walked away from the fire and down the cold bare floor to Michael’s room.
“Michael, hey,” he said, knocking gently on the door.
“Michael, hey, Mikey,” he said louder a few second later. “Mikey, lower that thing.”
“COME IN,” Michael yelled.
In one step through the door jam, entered the world he wanted to escape.
The covers were up to Michael’s chin. Only the arm holding the remote was exposed, aimed at his entertainment center with the high-def, flat screen TV and DVD player, his laptop and a tangle of phone chargers and iPod earplugs, or whatever they call them. There was the Xbox and Wei, and the gadgets and guns to play them. All of which necessitated a 220-volt line being wired into the house to replace the 110, a few year back. Horace protested the excess, from an intellectual and environmental standpoint, but Sally gave Michael his way. And here, Horace saw, in his own family, the latest chapter of economy: diversion. Disconnection from self and earth through the chronic, electronic connection to entertainment and sports, sometimes disguised as “communication.” On Michael’s walls were posters of his favorite athletes, captured in some moment of glory. Modern pagan gods, Horace always thought, as he looked around the room.
Michael’s shelves held more trophies than books, by far. Every season, every sport, memorialized in stick-um wood veneer, faux marble and gold-plated plastic baseball, football and basketball players. Michael was a good player, and some larger trophies were for more than run-of-the-mill participation. He made all-star teams and travel teams and went to off-season camps. Horace wanted nothing to do with it; it was Sally’s thing. When Horace questioned the expense, Sally said they could afford it, but he knew a sucker’s game when he saw it. All these private coaches and clinics were a new industry, a modern twist on the old baby-model scams inflicted on the parents of the Baby Boom. Now, instead of dangling Gerber’s commercials, they dangled college scholarships for sports. And parents paid for the long shot, because everybody thinks their kid is something special.
“Dad, what-up?” Michael said, not taking his eyes off the TV.
“Could you turn it down? Your mom is still sleeping.”
Michael lowered the TV.
“Want to get up and help me bring in some wood?”
“It’s good exercise ... it’ll put some meat on them bones,” Horace said, hating his own placating tone, and meek attempt at humor.
“Nah, Dad ... that’s okay.”
“C’mon. Help out your old man.’’ Horace reached down and shook his covered toe.
“Dad, no. It’s too f’en cold.”
Horace let it drop. He stood for a few seconds, frozen by colliding emotions, watching Michael watch the TV. Part of Horace boiled up to want to force the issue. But part of him was deflated. He wanted a boy who wanted to help — to be with — his dad. Michael was no longer that boy.
“So how’s school going?” Horace finally just asked.
“You know, all right,” Michael said.
“What are they teaching you these days?” Horace said.
“You know, the usual,” Michael said.
On the TV, in dated blurry color, was a baseball player, clearly from the early 1990s with his longish hair and a tight, polyester uniform. He was trotting down the first baseline pumping his fist in the air, as his teammates ran out of the dugout, jumping up and down like little boys.
The announcer was all-but-hyperventilating, “... and who can forget this HISTORIC shot ... 10th-inning ... the Game 6, World Series. Joe Grewww jacks one. GET OUT OF TOWN! Red Sox Nation goes WILD... Joe Grewww directing “Bedlam in Beantown” with the fist-pump ... an IMMORTAL moment ... Of course, the Sox lost the Series, but what the hey, Joe Grudeck’s going into The Shrine ...”
Historic shot, immortal moment. A homerun in a baseball game, for Christ sakes, and they’re making it sound like the Surrender at Appomattox, Horace thought. The hyperbole in this day and age was getting increasingly meaningless. The Shrine ... a baseball museum. He was about to say so, when Michael disarmed him.
“Hey, dad, you remember that guy, Joe Grudeck?”
“Yeah, a little,” Horace said, suddenly thankful his son initiated any conversation at all. “I was never big into sports, but I remember him a little. I guess he’s an old-timer now. Like me.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Gods of Wood and Stone includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mark Di Ionno. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Joe Grudeck is a living legend—a first-ballot Hall of Famer beloved by Boston Red Sox fans—who once played for millions under the bright Fenway lights. Now, he finds himself haunted by his own history, searching for connection in a world that’s alienated the true person behind his celebrity facade. He’ll step back into the spotlight once more with a very risky Hall of Fame acceptance speech that has the power to change everything—except the darkness in his past.
Horace Mueller is a different type altogether—working in darkness at a museum blacksmith shop and living in a rundown farmhouse on the outskirts of Cooperstown, New York. He clings to an anachronistic lifestyle, fueled by nostalgia for simpler times and a rebellion against the sports-celebrity lifestyle of Cooperstown, struggling to bring his baseball prodigy son to his side.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In this author’s acknowledgments, he writes that there had been many titles thrown around and decrees the final title, Gods of Wood and Stone, to be “perfect.” Do you think the title fits the work? Are there other titles you believe may have suited it?
2. Consider reading some of Mark Di Ionno’s newspaper articles from his career, particularly his sports stories from his early career in the New York Post. Do you see any similarities in his writing style? How do you think his journalism background informed his writing of this novel?
3. Baseball has long been considered America’s Pastime, from live broadcasts on the radio to the highly publicized televised events today. Discuss the role of the audience, fans, bystanders, and/or patrons in this novel, both at the farm museum and at baseball-related events.
4. Take a moment to consider the impact of one’s career or profession in your or a friend’s life. Can you relate to Joe Grudeck’s reaction to his history? What about Stacy’s reaction to Joe upon his return? Or do you find more to relate to in Horace, as he identifies deeply with his work in a way that Sally seems to think has caused him to adapt to it?
5. The idea of home is a recurrent theme throughout the novel. For Joe, home is not one he created himself. For Horace, it’s the opposite. How would both characters define the word home for themselves and their families?
6. In many ways, this book can be regarded as two portrayals of the American Dream: Joe becomes a very famous individual by significant effort, while Horace finds fierce pride in his family’s immigrant roots. As a group, outline the differences between these two versions of the American Dream. Which do you think you would rather have for a loved one or yourself?
7. “We have raised a generation that believes athletes are heroes and sports results are history.” (page 181) Consider this scene and conversation in the context of how we view athletes or celebrities in America today. Do you agree Horace’s comments on this behavior? Do you think Americans are losing sight of what its history comes from and what determines it?
8. “The Cardiff Giant” section of the book takes the reader out of the twenty-first century and transports them to another time. The Cardiff Giant’s role in the entertainment industry—and the history of New York State—may be viewed as a major turning point for men like P. T. Barnum and others. Discuss how you think this section and the Cardiff Giant itself may serve as a metaphor for Joe Grudeck’s or Horace’s life in the book. Do you think the historical anecdote helps you to better understand either character’s personality or struggle? Why or why not?
9. “Look around you, son,” Horace would say. “Cooperstown may not be the birthplace of baseball, but it is the birthplace of something bigger. It is the birthplace of American Manhood.” (page 45) Discuss the themes of masculinity that weave throughout the novel.
10. Expanding on themes of masculinity, compare and contrast the various relationships between fathers and sons in the novel. Discuss the change in Horace’s relationship with Michael that develops toward the book’s end.
11. The question of authenticity frequently arises in the novel. Discuss what authenticity means to Horace versus Joe. In what ways would you characterize these men as “authentic”? Do you think their definitions of authenticity are similar or different?
12. “Americans hate hypocrites as much as they love athletes. And trust me, once one of the media jackals rips into you, the pack will follow and tear you apart.” (page 291) Discuss Sal’s comment in connection with contemporary scandals in American media. Can Joe be viewed as a hypocrite in his behavior? Why or why not?
13. Do the final actions of the novel come as a surprise to you? Why do you think Horace attacks Joe?
14. The central figures in the novel are men, and the women in their lives are often cast aside, ignored, or physically abused. Discuss their relationships with these women. What gender dynamics exist? Are the relationships between mothers and sons surprising to you given the behavior of the adult men? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Take a trip to the local baseball team stadium (minor leagues can also be super fun!) or the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and discuss how the scenes in the stands came to life.
2. Consider reading The Natural by Bernard Malamud or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain as your next book club pick. Discuss how the works relate to each other. Is there one your group likes best?
3. As a group, research the Cardiff Giant, other related hoaxes, P. T. Barnum, and the birth of the entertainment industry that began around 1869. Discuss in which ways these forms of entertainment continue to thrive in contemporary America. Do you see any foreshadowing of modern leisure activities? Is the entertainment largely escapist or educational?
A Conversation with Mark Di Ionno
You come from an extensive background in journalism. Did your career in nonfiction come in handy while researching this book?
Yes, of course. Not only in journalism but my experiences as a sportswriter, editor, and general news columnist also did. As a sportswriter and sports columnist at the New York Post, I interviewed many household-name athletes and witnessed their behavior and attitudes toward fans, particularly women. The part of about Joe Grudeck’s memorabilia cash-and-carry exploits came directly from an investigation I did into Pete Rose’s memorabilia business before he was banned from baseball.
Likewise, when I became a general feature writer and columnist, I became very interested in local history and met many reenactors and other people with great passion for our “lost culture.”
Both Joe Grudeck and Horace Mueller are composites of people I have covered.
Many sections, especially those about the Giant, contain extraordinary historical context and detail. Did you uncover anything in your research worth sharing, other than what was included in the book? Were there any articles, books, or sources that you’d recommend your readers continue reading for additional information on the historical shift of entertainment (and baseball) in 1869?
I became interested in the Cardiff Giant during a visit to the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, NY, in the 1990s. There was an academic dissertation I found on line that was very informed about the Giant as a sensation. But much of the idea of the “historical shift in entertainment” came from my own knowledge of the heightening of industry, the lingering horrors of the Civil War, and the advent of manufactured goods, which at once created a need for advertising and allowed people more leisure time.
What came first for you in writing this book: the characters or the plot? Did you imagine having two plots simultaneously woven before they finally intersected? Did you plan to write a novel about a baseball player first or did that occur as your research brought you there?
The characters came first. Both were manifestations of my belief that our popular and sports culture has run rampant over more “authentic” traditions and cultures. As the characters formed in my head, I knew their intersection had to be public and violent, and the media would play a large part.
I struggled with the idea that the athlete should be a football player because, in my mind, the NFL is much more egregious and predatory in building football as a sport that overshadows all else. There are many more negative consequences of playing football in terms of lifelong physical and mental injury, fan violence, and over-commercialism.
But I couldn’t escape the Cooperstown connection. More history resides there, as well as the striking discord between the interest in the Farmers Museum and The Hall. It was perfect fuel for Horace’s bitterness.
Are the characters inspired by people you’ve known or perhaps written about over the years?
Yes. Absolutely. When I became a sportswriter, the last of the Joe Grudeck types were moving out. Gritty, one-team, loyal players. And as I stated before, I came to know many passionate—and broke—history reenactors and curators.
Writing an article (even one close to 3,000 words) is a much different experience from writing a novel. Can you discuss how your writing process differed in putting together Gods of Wood and Stone versus the countless articles you have done over the years?
In some ways they are similar. I write one scene at a time, then polish. The big difference of course is that columns give you a boost of adrenaline and the gratification of seeing your work published immediately. Deadline looms; when it’s done, it’s done.
A novel requires a much different stick-to-it-iveness. It’s long and drawn out. It becomes laborious and not much fun at times.
Deciding a work’s title can be quite a challenge for an editor and an author. In the acknowledgments, you mention that there had been many titles thrown around and decrees this title to be “perfect.” Are there other titles you believe may have suited it? How did you eventually come to this one?
My original title was American Mythology, which was roundly booed by everyone. Gods of Wood and Stone was the idea of David Falk, the brilliant editor of the book, and which he found in a biblical passage about a “false idol”.
What are some of your favorite books to read? Is there one book you could re-read time and time again or another you recommend to anyone in need of a good book?
I loved Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster, which is one of his lesser known books. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain was a book I wish I had written because he captured the very same themes brilliantly. As a veteran, it truly appealed to my sense that we have the word “hero” ill-defined in our country.
My favorite short story of all time is Keeper of the Faith by Philip Roth. Of course, The Natural is the best baseball book ever written. Bernard Malamud remains my writing idol for his simplicity and depth. And John Steinbeck for his journalistic themes.
Are you currently working on another book? If so, will it be another novel or perhaps a work of nonfiction?
Yes. It’s about police PTSD and stems from my journalistic work covering urban violence. It is dark, but truthful.
Which team are you rooting for in the next (either this year or years to come) World Series?
I don’t watch much baseball, or any sports for that matter. I’d much rather go to a local high school game than to a professional event.