In his novel, A Single Happened Thing, author Daniel Paisner explores the connection between father and daughter, a love of baseball, and more. After an apparent mystical encounter, protagonist David Felb’s life is turned upside down. As he struggles to reconcile his worldview with a world he can now only imagine, he begins to lose his way, but it is through a deepening connection with his daughter and an abiding love of baseball that he wills himself back to whole. Through baseball, he is able to enhance his connection with his daughter that deepens his beliefs and his love for the game that never changes.
The Good Men Project talked with Paisner about father-daughter relationships, being a good man, and baseball.
Good Men Project: David Felb is the protagonist in your novel, A Single Happened Thing. He seems to do and try everything to be a good husband, a good dad, a good employee. So why is the “meet-up” with Dunlap something he won’t let go of, thereby putting a strain on every relationship in his life?
Daniel Paisner: This other-worldly business is hard. In the hands of Stephen King or Steven Spielberg, perhaps, we can be made to accept a visitation or an apparition as a kind of given in the arc of the story. However, it’s possible to imagine that one of the key tensions to flow from the appearance of a ghostly specter might be the impossibility of proving to other characters (and, invariably, to readers) that the specter at the heart of the story is real. Here I wanted to take a look at what would happen to someone who so deeply believed he was being haunted by the ghost of a long-dead turn-of-the-last-century baseball player that his entire worldview was upended by that belief. That his relationships were strained on the back of it – that is, save for his relationship with his teenage daughter, which was somehow strengthened by it.
GMP: Father-daughter relationships are rarely depicted or explored deeply. Why did you choose that relationship and how important a role did baseball play in creating that relationship?
DP: The father-daughter relationship is interesting, complex, under-examined. When we see it in our fictions, it seems to resonate in a meaningful way – at least, it does so for me. For example, years after I first saw the movie “Paper Moon,” which was based on the Joe David Brown novel “Addie Pray,” the special bond between the con man Moses Pray and his daughter Addie stayed with me. The movie became a kind of touchstone for the way it offered an example of a father struggling to do the best he could trying to raise his daughter on his own. In later years, when I became the father to two whip-smart daughters, I found myself drawn to stories of fathers who connect with their daughters in unfamiliar ways. Here again, I might have tugged at a different common thread in exploring the relationship between Felb and Iona, but baseball was at the heart of the story I wanted to tell so it made sense to place it at the heart of their relationship as well.
GMP: How does Fred Dunlap play into that equation?
DP: I had the idea to filter the crisis of confidence/crisis of significance of David Felb through the life and career of Dunlap, who managed to post one of baseball’s all-time great seasons. His 1884 campaign with the St. Louis Maroons of baseball’s Union Association was remarkable, by almost every statistical measure.
It should be noted here that all of the game-related details in “A Single Happened Thing” are true – the rest, away from the field of play, is the stuff of imagination. Dunlap, nicknamed “Sure Shot” for the slingshot-type throwing motion he displayed at second base, hit over .400, scored nearly one and a half runs per game, and led his team to a dominant season. He ran circles around his contemporaries, and for a brief, shining moment he was regarded as a ballplayer without peer. In that same moment, he was the game’s highest-paid player – and then, in the next moment, he went from all-time greatness to mediocrity.
A few years later, it was as if he never even played the game: he died in relative obscurity – drunk, penniless, without friends or family to stand as pallbearers. In Dunlap’s stunning fall, I saw the story of the human condition. His head-scratchingly marvelous season in the sun stood in such dramatic contrast to his unfortunate, anonymous death it left me wondering what it means to matter, what it means to leave a mark – big questions that conveniently haunt our protagonist, David Felb.
As I searched for a way to attach Dunlap’s story to the struggle of a contemporary character who is himself looking to make some kind of difference in his own world, in his own way, I discovered that it was the unbreakable bond between parent and child – in this case, between father and daughter – that stands as our true and lasting legacy.
GMP: When it comes to legacies, why are more people fixated on the legacies of strangers (famous athletes, celebrities) rather than the legacies of loved ones?
DP: We don’t often see ourselves as we truly are – or, as we wish to be seen. Too often, we see ourselves in the examples of others. That’s how we find our heroes, our role models, our something to shoot for. For whatever reason, we don’t make room in our estimations for the people closest to us to loom larger than life – at least, not while they’re still alive and looming – and so we must sometimes step back and get a little perspective before we’re able to consider the impact a family member might have had on us, or on the world around. This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but it is definitely a thing worth considering.
GMP: That being considered, what can we take away from Felb, the dad?
DP: That all we can do is all we can do. That we are judged by the ways we judge others. That the courage of our convictions is central to how we see the world and how we choose to be seen in kind. Sometimes, the best we can offer our children is to show ourselves as flawed, striving, searching creatures, moving about the planet without all the answers to life’s central questions – sometimes, without any of the answers. When we are made weak or vulnerable or less than in the eyes of our children, we give them room to grow and perhaps discover some of these answers for themselves… to discover us as we truly appear.
GMP: 1998 was a pretty big year in baseball. Why did you choose that year for your book?
DP: In purely baseball terms, I wanted to set this story of love and loss and connectedness in a time before the taint of steroids, a time before the dark cloud of global terror, a time when our national pastime seemed more innocent.
It’s about the game itself – how baseball has changed over time and how it has remained the same. Specifically, it’s about how Felb sees himself in relation to the game, and the through-line baseball offers that links him from the boy he was to the man he has become. It’s the baseline to his days. Traditionally, our baseball musings have tended to be about fathers playing catch with sons, an endless quilt of boyhood dreams knitted together by the stuff of the game. Here I wanted to look at how baseball might stand as the point of connection between father and daughter – a bond that in the case of Felb and Iona appears strong enough to allow them to share not only a love of the game but a whole-hearted delusion with the game at its core.
Plus, the game seemed to mean more to those who played it and followed it before we had all these databases on the internet to help us worry over things like exit velocity and defensive shifts. The idea was to make the novel as contemporary as possible while still making it a little bit difficult for our protagonist, David Felb, to access information on the long-forgotten Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, once the specter of this 1880s baseball great seemed to alight in his path. I thought (hoped!) the 1998 season offered the perfect backdrop I was seeking – the last of how it was.
GMP: You mentioned how baseball can serve as a point of connection between parent and child, or in this case father and daughter. Why is it that baseball more than any other sport seems to depict this connection the best? How did you try and use that to explore the relationship between Iona and David?
DP: Baseball is a different animal. It’s timeless. There’s no clock, no boundaries on one half of the field. Its meandering pace invites reflection – demands it, really – to where the stories that attach to the game come to matter as much as the game itself. Over the course of the long season, the games stand as backdrop and background music to our own endless summers, while the fortunes of our favorite teams and players are dyed into the fabric of our communities. The beats and half-notes that make up the rhythms of the game can stretch across generations.
As a writer, I was drawn to the game for the room it provides: there are so many blank spaces to be filled and considered. In the novel, I wanted the game to stand as a kind of baseline for Felb – I loved the idea that the more his world changed, the more his days were clogged with the business of living and raising three daughters, the more baseball stayed the same.
As it often happens, the hobbies or passions of a parent are passed down to a child, and here it happens that Felb’s love of the game becomes a kind of common denominator in his relationship with his daughter Iona. I suppose I could have reached for a similar tie over another shared interest – chess, say, or the Civil War, or Marx Brothers movies. But the game meant something to me, and to my relationship with my own father, in such a way that I wanted to write about it here.
GMP: You chose 1998 because it was before steroids “tainted the game”. Do you feel the game is tainted forever? Or is it similar to past baseball “scandals” (Black Sox, Racism, Pete Rose, 1994 strike) we thought would change the way people viewed the game?
DP: Baseball’s been around for over 150 years. I suspect it’ll be around 150 years from now, in some form or another. The juicing scandal that rocked the game in the early 2000s won’t change that – although it has certainly impacted the legacies of many of the game’s biggest stars from that era. What’s changing, I think, is the game’s place in our pop cultural firmament. Attendance is declining. Young fans, with their shorter attention spans and various distractions, are turning elsewhere. Even young athletes are being drawn to faster-paced sports like basketball and soccer. Lifelong fans are surely willing to forgive the game for its past cheaters, but I sometimes worry where we’ll find the next generation of lifelong fans. That’s why this bond-between-the-generations business is so important in this context. Baseball matters, but in order for it to keep resonating with fans, it needs to be tended and nurtured by the likes of David Felb – a man who sees himself within the uncertain confines of the game, a man determined to share what he sees with his oldest daughter.
GMP: It was clear that each chapter detailed in Felb’s life centered around baseball. It was the cause for his single happened thing, it was the root for his relationship with Iona and what brought the family together through their rocky times. The consistency of baseball was the North Star for Felb’s life. Was that one of the messages you hoped to portray?
DP: Why is it that we are so quick to accept delusion and leaps of faith in our fictional characters, and yet we almost always look to explain away the inexplicable in our real lives? Here I wanted the reader to embrace the idea that David Felb has indeed been visited by the ghost of an actual old-time ballplayer – just as his daughter Iona comes to embrace the idea (and, indeed, to share in her father’s “delusion”). But at the same time I wanted Felb to struggle to make himself known – and to understand what it’s like to be dismissed over such as this by the woman he loves. My hope was that the story would resonate with readers who choose to believe Dunlap’s spirit has somehow alighted in 1998 Philadelphia and those who choose to believe, as Nell believes, that Felb has lost his tether on reality. In the novel’s concluding scene, I borrow a storyline from an actual ballgame played the following year at New York’s Shea Stadium – Game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves, which was decided by a “grand slam single” off the bat of Mets’ third baseman Robin Ventura. The apparent game-winning home run was officially recorded as a single because Ventura failed to round the bases before joining his teammates in celebration, leaving him forever mired on the path between first and second base, offering an opportunity to explore a fold in the timeless parameters that define our national game. Into this fold in baseball’s space-time continuum, I invite the reader to imagine that the spirit of Dunlap has returned a final time to Felb, as if to tell him that all will be well if he continues to believe – magical realism of a kind we have seen before in our baseball fictions (Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe,” Malamud’s “The Natural”), offered here in a way that joins father and daughter on a shared journey towards a hopeful future.
I would never witness anything interesting. I would never write anything beyond memos and flap copy and travel itineraries. I would simply love my wife and my daughters and hold them close and continue to take in meaningless midweek doubleheaders and mismanage the selling strategies of our midlist titles and ride along whatever middling currents I could manage until I washed up on some predictable shore.
It’s the late Nineties on the Upper West Side and book publicist David Felb (née Felber, née Felberstein) can sense his world shrinking. He is stuck in the slow lane at “a venerable second-tier publishing house” and feeling the encroaching changes technology will bring as he struggles to maintain a bond with his wife and three young daughters. Into the void steps Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, a tweed-clad, waxed-mustached nineteenth-century baseball legend with still impeccable timing who died penniless and obscure and seems to need something from Felb. Or is it the other way around? Felb dutifully goes to weekly psychiatrist appointments at his wife’s insistence, but when his hard-to-reach baseball-mad teenage daughter develops her own fascination, he can feel a chance to recapture something lost.
Daniel Paisner’s enchanting new novel about neurosis, intimacy, and balancing familial needs while juggling two careers and the demands of modern life is also a charming and memorable parable about losing your mind and finding yourself in the age of anxiety.
This content is sponsored by Relegation Books.
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