Two new books are now available for you, under what one of my friends has called the “zero-revenue business model.”
The Abbot of Saginaw came to me in 2014, my first novel. It had set out to be a completely different book, but as I took notes for that one, a new character emerged: Robert Yoder, former Benedictine novice turned Army Air Corps mechanic in WWII, who had become the owner of a poolroom in Saginaw, Michigan. He and his business partner/bartender Charles had constructed a generous, welcoming home for the working men of Saginaw, a true “third place” focused partly on pool but more fully on conversation and cameraderie. (The fictional Genesee Billiards Club is a better version of the best parts of the bar my dad went to, a family more native to him than the family he had at home. The guys at his Eagles Club would ultimately be his pallbearers, the ones who knew him best and would miss him most.)
Robert operates from what Natalia Ginsburg would call “the great virtues” rather than the little ones. He plays pool not to beat others, but to be his best self. He competes not to win, but to employ his full focus. He is a professional host not merely to make a living, but because he is drawn to build a place where men can become friends.
Throughout the story, he encounters others for whom those virtues do not exist. And although there’s a plot and a tournament and all that, the heart of the story is how Robert can maintain those great virtues in the face of the chislers and hustlers and fearful men who often travel from one poolroom to the next. How he can discover more ways to bring his best traits to the service of others.
& Sons was the work of summer and fall 2021. You may have seen it “live-blogged” here during the summer, as I gave weekly updates on its emergence, like a crop report. The origin of this one was in remembering a place I’d worked in the 1980s, a family sporting goods store that had once been the father’s general store. When that father died, he left it to his two children, in a way that guaranteed that they would be at one another’s throats for the remainder of their own lives.
In this book, the family business is Barrows & Sons, a sixth-generation farm in southern Nebraska. Cale, the youngest son, has spent his whole life fleeing farm culture, via college and grad school and faculty life and moving half a continent away from his home. Ray, the middle son (actually his sister Coby Rae, but she’d been a better son than Cale had ever been) stayed home to run the farm. BJ, the eldest son and rightful heir of Barrows & Sons, had been killed twenty years earlier in a farm accident, leaving Ray to hold the family’s legacy together.
When their father Bobby dies, his will makes it clear that Cale and Ray will have to come to some new relationship with one another—not a ten-minute phone call on their respective birthdays, but a tenuous, bumpy, wondrous partnership that makes them both new.
The two books are separated by seven years. One is urban and the other rural. One is set in the 2022 present, the other in April through November 1956. One protagonist is sexually and romantically inexperienced, the other broadly and diversely engaged. One has a doctorate, the other went straight from high school to abbey. But for all of those surface differences, the books share a common project: to explore the roles that generosity and service and decency can play in men’s lives, even as people around them imagine that they should just “man up” and fall in line.
Either of them can be yours, for the asking. Get in touch, give me your mailing address, and it’ll be on its way.