The first chapter of a book should serve as a hook, not a deterrent. But too often, authors fail to entice, which is why many people say they give a book 50 pages before deciding whether to pitch it or continue. David Duchovny’s second novel does potential readers a disservice by erecting not just one but two roadblocks they must clear before giving Bucky F*cking Dent a chance.
The first is a baseball-centric title with an embedded profanity, the nickname Red Sox Nation bestowed on the man who ruined their 1978 season. The culture is coarsening, sure, and Go the F*ck to Sleep was a bestseller (A**sholes Finish First, less so). But an ultimately winsome novel about a complicated father-son relationship would have been better served with a coffee-table-appropriate cover to broaden its appeal.
Then there’s the first chapter, which should have gasped its last tortured breaths crumpled in an editor’s trash can (or, more appropriate to the digital age, been dragged mercilessly to the “permanently delete” icon on the computer screen). The first eight pages are a bizarre, confused stumble toward the novel’s true beginning, which is the first sentence of the second chapter: “Like the actual Yankees, the men and women who worked the concession stands and the seats at the stadium had their own changing room.”
From there, Duchovny could have introduced Ted, his hot mess of a protagonist, the aspiring novelist, an Ivy League grad, reduced to slinging peanuts at a New York baseball stadium. His father, a Red Sox fanatic, named him “Lord Fenway,” but Ted is known as Mr. Peanut to his customers in the stands. He lives alone, subsisting on peanuts and pot, content with Zuckerberg-like consistency in his wardrobe of tie-dyed shirts, blue jeans and sandals. Even his car, a Corolla named Bertha, lacks ambition; it is a “homebody” that doesn’t like to go anywhere.
Ted hasn’t spoken to his dad in five years, but now the 60-year-old Marty is dying of cancer, and Ted has been summoned to the hospital by a comely grief counselor named Mariana who is helping Marty deal with the inevitable. “If the universe was constantly expanding, Marty’s universe was constantly contracting, its central sun losing touch with its outer planets and outer rooms, on its way to collapsing into one room, a small dot, a black hole, death.”
When Marty goes home to die, Ted moves in with him, and the story of what transpires between the estranged men — one a Yankees fan, the other a Red Sox devotee — is the heart of the novel, not the baseball story in which it is skillfully wrapped.
The Bucky Dent of the title is the real-life Yankees shortstop, now retired but still reviled in New England for his home run against the Sox in 1978 — the era in which Duchovny’s novel is set.
But Marty may not know the whole story, because Ted and Mariana have noticed that Marty seems to improve when the Red Sox are winning, and so they concoct a plan to conceal any losses from the dying man. Along the way, their relationship develops, the truth about what happened to Ted’s mom (and his parents’ marriage) is revealed, and a comical group of geezers prove that friends are more important than a winning season.
It’s a smart and funny story with pitch-perfect pacing, and a merry warmth that surprises in a tale about death. It is also possesses a cheeky, droll wisdom in pronouncements like these:
“It’s never Mickey Mantle that kills you. Never Willie Mays. Never the thing you prepare for. It’s always the little thing you didn’t see coming. The head cold that puts you in your grave. It’s always Bucky Dent.”
And, especially for denizens of New England:
“…Life’s not about winning, life’s about losing — Yankee fans don’t know anything about life, but Boston, Boston knows the truth.”
Bucky F*cking Dent is a romp for people who care about baseball — and for people who don’t. Ironically, Duchovny — yes, he’s that Duchovny, but this books stands tall on its own — is more of a basketball fan, and this novel is a phoenix rising from the dust of an unproduced screenplay. Circle of life and all, it will be one someday. A- — Jennifer Graham