The Man with Two Arms by Billy Lombardo

Friday, March 12, 2010

In Billy Lombardo’s new novel, The Man with Two Arms, Henry Granville, a science teacher and baseball nut, looks at the birth of his child as an opportunity for an experiment. Would it be possible to groom a perfectly symmetrical human through a strict campaign that insisted the child perform all his motor functions with both hands? Additionally, Henry wonders what intellectual benefits his self-described “symmetry campaign” might have. Could his child end up perfectly balanced between left-brain and right-brain skills? So, from an early age, Henry’s son Danny must obsessively alternate using his right hand and his left while throwing and hitting a baseball, brushing his teeth, writing and drawing, and everything else you can imagine. The symmetry campaign works—almost too well—as Danny not only becomes the greatest baseball player the world has ever seen, but also gets burdened with a mild case of clairvoyance. But with baseball superstardom comes the inevitable gaze of the public eye, and the constant attention and expectations threaten to destroy Danny, his family, and the game that he loves.

The Man with Two Arms

By Billy Lombardo
335 pages
Overlook Press, 2010
Find on

To say that The Man with Two Arms is just another sports book would be like saying Danny Granville is just another baseball player. As Henry tells Danny late in the novel, “You’re about something much bigger than baseball,” so is Lombardo’s novel. The title alone speaks to freakishness, a sideshow act that charges admission, and by doing so inherently asks several intriguing questions. How does the world define and react to unique talent? Are these talents gifts or burdens? What responsibility do people with these “freakish” talents have to the public? Danny echoes other talented superstars who often just want to be left alone to do what they do best. But when you are that good at baseball, or at anything, you become something more than an individual with individual wants and desires.

Playing for the Chicago Cubs, Danny evolves into a type of messiah, the chosen one who could redeem a franchise for a century of suffering. “It seemed as though the world had been made for [Danny]—that when God, or whomever, had first come upon the excellent idea of a world, he had done so with the image of Danny Granville in his head.  [ .  .  . ] It was possible, even, that God had waited this long billions of years in anticipation for that to happen.” But can anyone, even the greatest baseball player ever, be expected to hold up under such an enormous burden of responsibility?  Or perhaps a better question might be, does he even have a responsibility?

Questions of science and art, family and responsibility, fate and chance, the individual and society, permeate the depths of what is on the surface a simple story rendered in a youthful and fable-like style. Lombardo cut his teeth onstage at Chicago’s Uptown Poetry Slam, and, in addition to two other collections of short stories, has recently published a collection of poems, Meanwhile, Roxy Mourns. His background as a poet shows in his musical descriptions of simple movements. “Henry poured Killian’s Red into his pint glass from the still parade of knobbed options on tap, filled it to the lip of the mug and walked as though the floor were a tightrope beneath him.” Lombardo paints the pouring of a beer as a triumphant act in a circus performance.

Similar delight comes in searching for all the symmetries Lombardo has deposited throughout the book: the Granvilles live equidistant between Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park; the basement of their house is devoted to science and baseball, while the top floor is devoted to love and art. But part of me wishes there were more balance in the narrative design, something in the way the book was structured that also spoke to questions of balance and symmetry. The novel is broken into three nine-chapter sections, like three baseball games. But why not two, a perfect doubleheader? Book One chronicles Danny’s younger years, Book Two his teenage years, and Book Three his professional days with the Chicago Cubs. Yet the book’s most interesting and important conflicts don’t emerge until Book Three, with the onset of adulthood and all of its requisite dramas. For me, that’s way too late in the game.

After the media scrutiny becomes too much, and Henry gets painted as a modern Victor Frankenstein, Danny asks, “Why can’t I just play baseball?” The book itself—like Danny, his parents, and his girlfriend—seems to want to keep Danny forever young, an innocent boy playing a boy’s game for its sheer enjoyment. Lombardo recognizes this as an impossibility, but can’t help himself from wishing it could be true.