Early in Faithful, Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan’s alternately obsessive, exhilarating, exhausting, hilarious, openhearted diary of the Boston Red Sox 2004 season, King defines his addiction to the Red Sox by comparing it to malarial fever and writes that, win or lose, he’ll continue to follow the Sox as he has every year since 1967 when he felt said fever take hold. ”Which is pretty much addiction in a nutshell: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
It’s quite possible you have to be from New England (or Chicago, home of the other 20th-century Trophy Case for Baseball Futility) to appreciate not only how shocking the Red Sox World Series triumph is but how much it rattles the core of our region’s collective identity. Without the chip on our shoulder, without the certainty that the gods dislike us, without the perverse solace of an annual wound-licking, and most importantly without our addiction to all of the above, how are we to define ourselves?
As Huns. Let’s start there. Huns who’ve long peered into the empire of Rome and thought, ”One of these days, I’m gonna get me some of that.” Think of the 2004 Red Sox team itself — the scraggly, overbearded band of ”idiots.” Then think of the look on Derek Jeter’s face as game 7 of the American League Championship Series waned in the Gotham twilight with the Yankees down by a touchdown. Gone was that ferret-like Jeter smugness, and what replaced it was the uncertain look of a young emperor as he stared off across the river and thought: ”Jeesh. There’s a friggin’ boatload of Huns over there.”
If the Boston team are happy Huns, what are the fans? Judging by O’Nan and King, they’re lunatics. Inspired addicts, constantly jonesing for the next fix. Of the two, King is the more famous junkie, but O’Nan is more perilously close to requiring detox. Consider the following entry: ”Two innings into the opener and the season’s turning to s—.” Two innings, people. O’Nan, a consistently daring novelist (his A Prayer for the Dying is, in my opinion, a new masterpiece of American literature), covers nearly every major play of every game of the season with a child’s doe-eyed wonder. While King is far more likely to admit he switched channels or went to bed early during a groaner, O’Nan identifies with a bumper sticker that reads ”JOB WAS THE FIRST RED SOX FAN,” looks for ”defining moments” of the season as early as April, and, in an uproarious set piece, brings a fishing net — yes, a fishing net — to Fenway to catch batting-practice balls from his Green Monster perch.
King, on the other hand, seems to have the deep-seated fatalism of a Red Sox fan sewn into his ventricles. While psychologists long ago posited a connection between Thanatos and Eros obsessions, King has hipped to a newer construct: the linkage of death fixations with Red Sox fandom. Because we acutely suffering fans have always accepted the basic tenet of both Christianity and RedSoxanity — our reward is unlikely to come in this world.
What makes Faithful such an engaging read is not that the Red Sox won. It’s that the entries retain a warts-and-all glimpse into the mentality of all fans. O’Nan and King play honest — they don’t excise early observations or opinions that could make them look foolish with the benefit of hindsight. They rag on manager Terry ”Coma” Francona, make dire predictions for a midsummer team with no identity or passion, and fairly rage at the heavens when shortstop Nomar Garciaparra is traded. King writes eloquently and quite nakedly about the sense of inferiority a Boston fan feels toward New York (he even cops to wishing Boston drew the Twins instead of the Yanks in the ALCS, a wish I regretfully admit I shared at the time), and O’Nan, well hey, O’Nan left the fishing-net story in there.
And take what biblical symbolism you will from that, because Faithful is ultimately a quasireligious book about what all great religions should be founded upon: love — in all its blindness and terror and euphoria and purity and, yes, addiction.
(Dennis Lehane, the Boston-based author of Mystic River and Shutter Island, is working on a new novel that begins with the 1918 World Series, the last time the Red Sox won it all.)