Fontana is out now from Bold Strokes Books
This past September, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended for three games for no reason. At least according to him. After all, all he did was write “Tu ere maricon” in the eye black on his face during a game against the Boston Red Sox. In Escobar’s native Cuba, maricón means “homosexual,” “queer” or “faggot.” He later explained at a press conference that the message wasn’t meant for anyone in particular. “I didn’t mean to say anything. It was not for anyone, and it was not meant to offend.”
Escobar’s homophobic fumbling provides the perfect backdrop to Fontana, the debut novel of New York author Joshua Martino. The story is told from the point of view of a sports reporter, Jeremy Rusch, who writes about Major League Baseball’s New York Mets, a team based in the borough of Queens. More importantly, Rusch dogs the career of Ricky Fontana, a 20-year-old rookie who turns into a star hitter and international sex icon. As the season begins Fontana’s talent has even hardened pros predicting that he’ll break Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak record. Despite his private, media-shy personality, Fontana is an Italian-American golden child. That is until Rusch discovers Fontana’s well-guarded secret: the superstar baseball player is gay.
Fontana is completely accessible even for non-sports fans. Hitting streaks, batting averages and RBIs aside, all you need to know is that from the outset Ricky Fontana is the world’s best baseball player, professionally respected and super sexy. Rusch convinces himself that baseball is ready for the first openly gay professional. He thinks he’s doing Fontana a favour, that the young baseball star will be able to live more openly — not to mention the headlines will be a boost to the reporter’s waning career.
Think of Fontana as a modern-day Death in Venice on the baseball diamond. The narrator, Rusch, is a flabby, frustrated heterosexual man destructively obsessed with a youthful, beautiful Adonis of a major leaguer. Rusch’s often pathetic life is somewhat endearing, but really he’s an alcoholic, in a failing marriage, and is quite self-interested. He is put through the wringer, but that pales in comparison to what happens to Fontana, the young man he outs. Fontana becomes the world’s punching bag, while Rusch is heterosexually privileged; that angle is explored but almost not enough. In the end he is penitent for what he’s done, but only after ruining a young person’s life. Rusch, on the other hand, gets his own life back on track and gets a book deal. That’s not to say Ricky Fontana’s tragedy isn’t somewhat righted, but the balance between the outcome of the two main characters seems unfair, though perhaps this could be chalked up to a complicated reality.
Simply put, Fontana is well written and very affecting, arouses a visceral reaction, equal parts anger and dread. Without veering to the didactic, Martino’s novel confronts sports, media, celebrity and religious industries, dissecting exactly why an openly gay, major league sports star would be such a gigantic deal to the world. At the core of the story, Ricky Fontana may be a god at the plate, but he is a human like anyone else, neither martyr nor demon, despite the world demanding he be one or the other.
Recently, Puerto Rican featherweight Orlando Cruz became the first openly gay active boxer. After winning his first fight since making the announcement, he was asked by an ESPN writer if he thinks he’ll become an advocate for the gay community. Cruz answered, “No,” but said, “I feel happy where I am. I’m free. I’m more at peace.” Not all gay and lesbian athletes and celebrities are cut from the activist cloth, nor should they have to be. Much like Ricky Fontana in Martino’s narrative, it’s when we as a society demand that people be something they’re not, whether it’s a hero or someone to be vilified, that we forget they’re only people, just as imperfect as the rest of us. —Michael Lyons