erik lundegaard

Book Review: 'Benchwarmer' by Josh Wilker

Josh Wilker is welcome respite in a culture where people constantly peddle certainty. He is the duke of doubt, the Caesar of the second-guess. His tagline, “voice of the mathematically eliminated,” is the best I've seen on the web. I think of him as a kindred spirit. 

His new book is called “Benchwarmer: A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Fatherhood,” but it's really an encyclopedia of failure from A to Z, told in conjunction with the first troublesome year of his son's life. It's about attempts to order a disorderly world. 

The first entry, “Aardsma, David,” is about the problems inherent in this sisyphean task. When Wilker was young, baseball encyclopedias made sense to him since the first entry was one of the greatest players of all time: Aaron, Henry. “But at some point when I wasn't paying attention,” Wilker writes, “David Aardsma slouched toward a maor league mound for the first time.” Aardsma was the M's closer for a few dismal seasons (2009-10) when we led the Majors in the fewest runs scored. We made him our closer and made a big deal out of him because we didn't have much else. We emphasized the “Aar” in “Aardsma,” as if he were a Pirate, as if we were all pirates, and tough, even though we weren't. Even though we were the doormats of the American League.

BenchwarmerHere's how Wilker ends his section on Aardsma:  

He's never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. Not long after his name started appearing at the bottom of box scores like equivocating textual marginalia—an inning of relief work here, a third of an inning there—the unambiguous order-centering legend he supplanted at the head of the alphabet also had his home run record surpassed, acrimoniously, ingloriously (see asterisk). I was almost forty. I'd never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. My wife was a little younger. We'd been married for a while, and the years were starting to lurch by like ghostly freight cars. We talked sometimes about having a kid. I wanted to get everything sorted first. But the world just kept getting more unsortable. I no longer even knew where to begin.

I'd loved Wilker's first book, “Cardboard Gods,” and assumed that enough folks thought similarly that Wilker would be writing full-time. Nope. Not only does he have a day job, but he's constantly worried about losing his day job. “Cardboard Gods,” and any money from it, isn't even mentioned. How sad is that? To write that well and not make a living from it? Meanwhile, E.L. James feasts on caviar.

It's the day-job stuff where I most identified with Wilker. The awful commute:

My bus ride home seemed to go on and on, as it always does if I can't lose myself in a story. We rode past shopping centers and malls and Jiffy Lubes. Sometimes there were low dim homes at the fringe of the busy road, all of them looking like flawed repetitions. Some had American flags. They blinked in and out of sight in a homely, dragging rhythm. There's a conjugated chant of affirmation at the heart of the myth of America—yes, I can; yes, you can; yes, we can. The triumph defining the American Dream can be realized, but it is based wholly on your unwavering belief.

It's a belief Wilker doesn't (or can't) share. 

A little over halfway through my ride through the darkness I turned left off of Clark and slipped onto quieter streets for a while. By then my heart rate had risen, so I glided through the dark awake, feeling the day leave me, feeling by its absence how much it had been smothering me, how I go through most of my waking hours just partially alive.

So much of what we consume is wish-fullfillment fantasy but what we really want, what we certainly need, is identification. Is anyone else out there feeling like me? Anyone else feeling this hollow inside? I'd read passages like the above and my eyes would melt with gratitude. 

Wilker, who as a child made a hero out of Rudy Meoli, and as an adult made him resonate with meaning, makes this book a tribute to all the marginalia and failure in life and sports. He writes of “Snodgrass, Fred” and “Ehlo, Craig.” He writes of “Bust” and “Can't” and “Desperation Heave,” “Entropy” and “Error” and “Ex-.” He gives us the “Fold” and the “Fumble.” He gives us the “Goat.” 

I got bogged down a bit about 2/3 of the way through, as if Wilker's handwringing became too much even for me; but then he recovered nicely (or I did) and we finished strong. Buy the book. We might not be able to order the world, but we can release Josh Wilker from his day job. He deserves to be writing full-time. We deserve to be reading more of him.

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Posted at 07:38 AM on Tue. Jun 23, 2015 in category Books  

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