Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Comeback Season

The Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love
Cathy Day (2008, Free Press)

Cathy Day’s report of her life as a single woman in search of an eligible man is almost too gripping. The deck is well and truly stacked against her: she is (1) a college teacher (2) in her late thirties who (3) lives in Pittsburgh; but Day is so spunky, you have to cheer her on. She confronts the big question of love (and football): “What ultimately determines the outcome of these games? Is it about intangibles like fate and chemistry or is it about tangibles like preparation and control? Or is it both?” The lesson she takes from her beloved Indianapolis Colts is that you have to keep trying.
So she does. She networks like mad, and signs up for dating services. She invites friends and their friends to watch football. She accepts a date with her carpenter’s assistant, who was in kindergarten when she got out of high school. She gets advice from other women--but their news is all bad. All the desirable single men have left town, and they aren’t coming back. By way of saving grace, Day conjures a sideline reporter who is covering her season. “Reporter: Reporting live from the sidelines of this battle taking place inside Cathy Day’s head, this is Suzy Hightop. Back to you, Bob.” As in Bull Durham, clichés to the rescue!
Day’s trials and tribulations are amusing, but also pretty painful to read. I couldn’t help imagining other treatments of the material that would have been easier to digest. She could have concentrated on the sociology of people’s choices about their careers and romantic lives. She certainly self-aware enough about the choices she’s made, and how they have brought her to the life she has. Or she could have have played the unsuccessful matchups for laughs, since she’s already had to blur the men’s identities; but Day is probably too decent and innocent for the requisite bitter wit.
I generally prefer memoir to fiction, so I surprise myself by saying this, but this is material that would have worked better as a novel, something in the Nick Hornby vein. As Steven Pinker says in last month’s book, The Stuff of Thought, “At the comfortable distance of fiction, we can be riveted by characters who are forced to think the unthinkable about their intimate relationships, as in Sophie’s Choice and Indecent Proposal.”
Using commercial means to meet romantic partners falls into that taboo category for me. I’d be more willing to contemplate all the little insults and embarrassments Day suffers if I didn’t have to realize that they actually happened to somebody I like. In a novel, too, certain episodes could be shaped to some happier conclusions; if our heroine had to be thwarted, I would rather think it had been by the novelist’s art, not by the real-life brain-lock or bad luck of the memoirist. And who knows, the character might have had the freedom to invent a solution that eluded the memoirist.
I don’t know, that might be cheating, but it’s also what fiction is for. Or so it seems to me.

Email edition,
November 2008

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