Growing up my mom was the reader in the house even though the demands on her time had reduced that to mostly newspapers and magazines with the occasional book borrowed from the local library. The hard evidence was locked away in an antique oak bookcase with a glass door that lived in the basement. There stood several rows of books, the names of a number of authors repeating along the rows.
“Why,” I recall asking, “do you have so many books by the same person.” And as I remember it mom said something like, “When you find an author you like you read a lot of their books because they stick with you.” If those weren’t the exact words they were essentially the heart of the matter.
But the present book calls that into question since for me it functioned much better as a sleep aide than a mental stimulus.
Our scribe is Nick Hornby, his subject, obsession. Okay, that’s unfair. If I had to characterize Hornby’s favorite subject it would be growing up or maybe, more accurately, the changes we go through as we age into who we become.
And yet there’s some truth to the obsession thing. Like many another reader, my first encounter with Hornby was High Fidelity. It was an incredibly male book focusing on the owner of a second-hand record store and his travails. That character was a music obsessive so part of my delight was discovering that such a problem was both transatlantic and one that persisted past age 30.
I’m looking across the room at a shelf that holds a couple of other Hornby titles and neither of them had the same impact on me. They were, I suppose, pleasant enough diversions. But I may as well have waited for the movies. (In fact, a number of Hornby titles, including High Fidelity, have been made into films. It seems John Cusack also has this music obsession which led to his sort of being Hornby’s Hollywood patron.)
In the present case the obsession is soccer or, as my friend and former ex-pat Philip likes to say, proper footie. More accurately, Hornby’s obsession lies with one team–Arsenal. Even if you don’t follow the team you may have seen a photo of some scrum filled with red jersey’s bearing the logo of Emirates airlines. That would be Arsenal who have other infamous fans besides Hornby.
Hornby is a dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal fan and Fever Pitch is a memoir of his obsession. If truth be told I have a glancing relationship with sport. I haven’t the capacity to sit and watch any sport with any regularity. Nor am I capable of retaining the statistical arcana that propels discussion of whatever season we happen to be in. (I can learn it as history, though. You ought to hear me on the pre-1970s Yankees.)
That creates a problem. Males put considerable energy into following and discussing sports. If it didn’t so often lead to fisticuffs (as it did in Britain in the 70s and 80s) I’d speculate that it served as a social lubricant. But it’s not merely about enjoying athleticism; devotion to a team is demanded. Which is where it falls apart for me and where, for Hornby and the rest, it all begins.
I may as well confess that this dynamic usually leaves me feeling alienated from the rest of humanity. (Or at least the chunk of it, male and female, that stands there talking about “their” latest game.) I suppose I thought Hornby would hand me some sort of magic key, an insight that was going to unlock this whole mystery for me. As I very often think, I figured I’d read the book and it would make me whole.
Early on ( pages 10 and 11 to be exact) Nick warns us, “…obsessives are denied any kind of perspective on their own passion. … Fever Pitch is an attempt to gain some kind of an angle on my obsession.” Over the next 230 some odd pages he details that obsession without ever providing, for me at least, any glimmer of understanding. So obsessive is Hornby that the book, arranged chronologically, is divided into sub-sections demarcated by game date and match up. I’d chalk that up to research but he warns us in that same up front section he does such things from memory.
Open this book and you’ll read the tale of a fan’s growing up, his life and love affair with his team. Other reviewers (those in GQ and Elle, along with Michael Palin and Roddy Doyle) assure us through cover blurbs that this is a humour-filled classic. If so, it’s only for the existing fan.
The truth is, if sport fails to move me, soccer puts me to sleep. Maybe that’s an American thing. But it’s too low scoring to sustain a gripping narrative. Sure, complain about baseball but there, at least, you have a one-on-one-duel taking place within a team setting. Soccer is 20 guys running back and forth on a very big field generating copious amounts of sweat. Scoring seems to be an afterthought (and I thought the 2016 Super Bowl, a defense driven game, was enthralling).
It would be hard for anyone to hold my attention with a soccer story given all that. Hornby himself says (p. 213) that the “tyranny football exerts over [his] life…is less reasonable and less attractive.” He’s right. Perhaps only a fan can appreciate a book such as this.
Me? I guess I just need to keep looking for that key to help me understand fandom.