THE CATCH, by Alison Fairbrother
Writers have always used objects as a tool to tell their stories – Hawthorne’s letter, Maupassant’s necklace, Hammett’s falcon. Follow the bouncing crown, I’ve learned, as a way to understand the structure of Shakespeare’s history plays. The literary object is at its most effective a powerful revealer of character – it tells us about the people who possess it and those who covet it; those who are attracted to it and those who are repelled by it; those who consider it meaningless and those who give it undue importance.
In Alison Fairbrother’s Warm and Funny debut novel, “The Catch”† the revealing tools are a baseball and a tie rack. With these items, Fairbrother aims to highlight the character of Eleanor Adler – the 24-year-old storyteller who struggles with the death of her seductive father and must deal with his legacy.
The novel begins with this line: “My father, a little poet, celebrated holidays out of season.” The father is James, iconoclastic and charming, a man who has had little success in the material world (he has one well-known poem) but is loved by his nearest and dearest, perhaps especially his eldest daughter, Ellie. (The opening line refers to the fact that James celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Easter with his four children from three different marriages during the summer when he has custody.)
James is the kind of man who invents a drink called a “razzleberry frang frong,” to describe Washington DC as “that sybaritic city” of bloviators, to give his watch away on a whim to a worker at a grocery store. In the first chapter, he and Ellie engage in competitive puns, his wife cooks the Thanksgiving turkey in a bikini, his middle daughters, Sadie and Anna, roll their eyes at him—and he tosses his prized possession, his baseball. and again with his son, Van, who is named after Van Morrison.
The scene might seem a little too quirky, if Fairbrother didn’t temper Ellie’s adoration of her father with a healthy ambivalence. She adores him both and understands how frustratingly boyish he is; she wants to confide in him and she wants to hide from his judgment; she believes she is his favorite child, but feels uncomfortable when he praises her over her siblings.
Her place in James’ affections is called into question after his sudden death at the age of 52. Despite having few possessions and no savings, James had the foresight to draft a will, leaving a small set of precious and meaningful objects to his family: his record collection to his son, a painting to his wife. , his hats to Sadie, his Jerry Lewis movies to Anna. Ellie is sure she will inherit cherished baseball. Instead, she gets a glow-in-the-dark tie rack, and the baseball goes to a mysterious stranger.
The importance of baseball is linked to James’ most famous poem, “The Catch.” And in both the poem and the novel, the meaning of the title changes as the truth about baseball, and therefore about her father, continues to unfold. Early on, Ellie quotes James as saying that a poem is a way of saying “maybe.” That word guides her as she tries to understand why she was left behind in what she considers a “gag gift” rather than a legendary keepsake. Perhaps this is the answer, she thinks, as she researches the baseball’s intended recipient; maybe this is the man, she thinks, as she learns about her father’s past.
After the funeral and the disappointing legacy, Ellie returns to Washington, where she works for a startup news organization and lives in a “social justice-themed” group home with some ambitious roommates in their 20s. Fairbrother worked as a journalist in DC, and her writing about the culture of the place is one of the most entertaining in the novel – perceptive, wry, and witty. In an interview, Ellie says, “I moved to DC so I could use” influence as a verb”; she describes certain colleagues as the kind of men who always fix bicycles and “often make reverent references to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.”†
Ellie is in a relationship with Lucas, an elderly married man whose presence complicates one of the most interesting motifs in “The Catch”: the enigma of masculine charisma. Fairbrother recognizes how charisma can be a smokescreen for darkness and an excuse for fairly reprehensible behavior. She also nods at the pleasure of a certain kind of charm – a quality that many people, including those who surrounded James, may not have. wanted to resist. Read: Despite our better judgment, we may know a man is flawed and still like him. When it comes to Lucas, Ellie is hungry for the thrills a glorious man can give; with youthful smugness, she tries to ignore his wife’s inconvenient facts, his age, and his undue urge to jump into bed with her. Their relationship is drawn with such sensuality and affection that we are also willing to ignore these facts, support them, even if the uneasy reality of his circumstance lingers in the background.
Fairbrother sketches Ellie’s mind after her father’s death – her obsessive thinking, her attempts to distract herself, her subsequent plunges back into the reality of loss – with thoughtful observation of the rhythm and patterns of grief. Once back in her life, Ellie is haunted by the issue of baseball, so she manipulates a new work assignment to fit her quest to learn more about James – a questionable decision that results in relatively minor consequences for herself, but major consequences for the people around her. Ellie’s careless behavior represents an underdeveloped and therefore exciting investigation into a family dynamic – one in which a daughter responds to her father’s reckless rights, not by shrinking back into herself, by becoming ultra-virtuous or self-destructive, but by behaving with similarly reckless rights in turn.
While the mystery of the baseball and tie rack guides us through the plot, I found myself wishing the objects played a smaller role. The neatness of that journey and Fairbrother’s steady movement toward closure are at odds with the power of this book, which portrays a bright, talented, and sexual young woman who is learning, as adults should, to balance pride. bring with humility, pain with pleasure and acceptable fabrications with inconvenient truths.
Julia May Jonas is the author of ‘Vladimir’.
THE CATCH, by Alison Fairbrother † 288 pp. † Random house † $27