Gods of Wood and Stone by Mark Dionno (Touchstone, 2018)
The two protagonists of Mark Dionno’s brilliant first novel are as different as two men could be in most facets of their lives. Joe Grudeck is a recently retired pro-baseball player, on his way to the Hall of Fame; Horace Mueller is a blacksmith who works at a village which re-enacts life in 19th century America. However, in this fast paced novel, it is apparent that at some point the lives of these two men will converge in a powerful way. The novel weaves the threads of Grudeck’s and Mueller’s stories to a cataclysmic conclusion that the reader senses will come between two burly men who have wrestled with personal rage for most of their lives.
Dionno made his mark as a career journalist, writing as a front page news reporter for The Star Ledger, and NJ.com. He is an adjunct journalism professor at Rutgers University, and a resident of the Garden State. Thus, it should be no surprise that this Pulitzer Prize finalist has a crisp writing style that draws in the reader from page one.
Using the dual character narration that has become so popular in contemporary fiction, Dionno alternates chapters between Grudeck, a native son of Union, NJ and Horace Mueller, who worships the values of post-Civil War America, and struggles to inculcate the present generation in a gentler, more purposeful way of life, in which hard work was honored as one of man’s greatest achievements.
Grudeck, who was the shining glory of his father’s life has had immeasurable fame, women, and fortune, and has learned how to cash in using his star status. But now, with his pro-career behind him, Grudeck is coming to terms with his fading glory. What he envisions ahead is emptiness, with no close buddies, no wife or children to enjoy a future with, and no occupation other than playing golf with insipid businessmen, who want to brag that they have played on the green with the Hall of Famer, Joe Grudeck.
Grudeck returns to his hometown for its celebration of his induction into the Hall of Fame. At the party given in his honor, he feels the emptiness more keenly than ever when he encounters a beautiful woman from his high school days, “Stacy, with the beautiful facey,” as he called her then. Although Joe is convinced that Stacy is the fantasy woman who will fill the void in his empty life, Stacy Milo remains grounded in the reality that after high school, Joe joined the big leagues and never once looked back at her. She is reticent to move forward with a man whom she cannot trust.
Adding another layer of intrigue in Grudeck’s life is that he harbors a dark secret about a regrettable event that happened in Syracuse during his rookie days of baseball. In the present climate of the “Me, too,” movement, Grudeck grapples with the fact that the revelation of his past indiscretion could ruin him if it were ever disclosed. This fact haunts him and puts a serious damper on his Hall of Fame honors.
Like Joe Grudeck, Horace Mueller is facing a future of emptiness. His wife, Sally, cannot hide her contempt for Horace’s profession, values, and parenting skills. Sally and Horace’s fourteen year old son, Mike, who is an aspiring baseball Big Leaguer, conspire to humiliate Horace at every opportunity, Sally has rebuffed her husband for years in the bedroom, and Mike hides from his Dad behind ear buds and video games to avoid sharing anything, past, present, or future with the father who adores him.
Rich in themes, Dionno puts the question before us, what defines a hero in modern life? Mueller, fascinated by a stone statue carved in 1869 to scam the public as the petrified corpse of a Philistine giant, makes this statement to the visitors of his park, “The story about the Cardiff Giant isn’t so much about one man’s folly or the gullible rural public or the assault on religion, or the emergence of natural science . . . It’s about how we measure our culture. The commercial, pop culture forces count the number of people who watch a game or show on TV, go to a movie, download music, all to say, ‘This is what the public wants. This is who Americans are.’” (p. 307)
Is a Joe Grudeck, with his Louisville slugger, an American god of wood? Is that who this once hard working nation worships now? And Joe, himself, queries his status, knowing that the foundation of his fame rests on feet of clay. Is Horace Mueller, in his work shirt and scraggly beard only a relic of values once embraced by our country as good and true?
Family values, relationships between men and women, husband and wife, father and son are also at the core of Dionno’s story that examines the fabric of 21st century American culture. This is, indeed, a novel, especially for Jerseyans as it references so many towns and sites, such as the Raritan Bay Bridge and the twin light towers of Sandy Hook, and, of course, our beloved Jersey Shore, that has great appeal and poses questions that readers will enjoy discussing with family, friends, and those who are passionate about well-written modern American literature..