"Fontana," author Joshua Martino’s debut novel, posits this situation: What if the greatest major league baseball player in American history happened to be gay? The novel details what happens when a reporter outs him. It is a detailed and entertaining read, despite its numerous superfluous subplots and a jumbled storyline.
The young and handsome Ricky Fontana, a rising star for the New York Mets, is about to break Joe DiMaggio’s long-held record and become the greatest hitter ever. Unlike most professional athletes, Fontana’s personal life remains indomitably private, and much to the chagrin of sportswriters and tabloids, his preferred topic of conversation is, not surprisingly, his favorite sport.
Fontana’s miracle season is thrown into disarray when he is publicly outed by Jeremy Rusch, a hard-drinking rookie reporter desperate for a hot story. Rusch’s column, complete with photos of Fontana in a compromising position with another man, launches a firestorm of praise and condemnation from fans and fellow players. Unfortunately, Fontana’s sexuality and alleged romantic escapades repeatedly overshadow his inimitable performance on the field.
Although the novel’s premise is hypothetical, Martino uses the journalistic voice of his narrator, Rusch, comprehensively to relay the aftereffects of Fontana’s outing, much like a series of feature articles for a magazine or biography. The author even calls attention -- arguably too often -- to the fact that his character is writing a book.
Rusch acknowledges he is singlehandedly responsible for subjecting Fontana to such public scrutiny and essentially makes it his mission to present both the negative and positive ramifications of his decision to write the tell-all piece, as though he were an impartial observer.
At his core, Rusch isn’t a bad guy, yet he isn’t the most likeable character, and much of his behavior is pretty deplorable, such as his excessive drinking and taking his wife for granted. But the author doesn’t pretend to make him out to be some working-class hero or anything other than a lonely, middle-aged, dime-a-dozen sports writer whose only true pleasure is America’s favorite pastime.
The professional and personal journeys of the reporter and his subject are interesting and intriguing, particularly when both men are off the field, as Rusch tries to save his crumbling marriage while Fontana hopes to build a long-term relationship with his own love interest, Peter.
Back on the field, Fontana gets caught up in another controversy after he defends himself when a rival team player spouts antigay slur.
Several other side stories are interjected in the storyline, including the presidential race and a reverend’s petition to ban gay players from Major League Baseball, but they mostly get lost in the shuffle.
Joshua Martino’s impressive debut novel is reminiscent of Patricia Neil Warren’s classic "The Front Runner," insofar as it asks us to consider whether society would accept a great athlete who also happens to be gay.
Bold Strokes Books
by Joshua Martino