Friday, July 25, 2014

The Sweet Spot

The character of Joseph X. Talty, known throughout "The Leather Man" as Uncle Joe, is fully developed in Chapter 14. The chapter also adds details about David Talty, Uncle Joe's nephew, introduced at the end of Chapter 9 and fleshed out in Chapter 10. David surmises in Chapter 10 that he is going to be named one of Canyon State's four football captains once training camp begins, and his character takes on importance as the novel progresses.

Chapter 14 explains how David was orphaned _ his parents died in a car crash on the twisting stretch of Highway 93 between Challis and Salmon, Idaho towns which grew up along the Salmon River. David's two sisters were old enough to get by on their own, but Uncle Joe took his nephew in and raised him.

The values Uncle Joe instilled in David were as colorful and varied as Uncle Joe's experiences in heavy-equipment operation for one of the world's biggest construction companies, not to mention his expertise in philosophy, Irish history, mechanics and sports. The chapter begins with his attempt to talk David out of the blues after breaking up with his girlfriend during the previous semester in college. He asks:
"What could be worse than breaking up with her?"
David tries to humor Uncle Joe out of the questioning mode by mentioning the death of musician Buddy Holly several years previous, but all that does is get his relative started. He quickly cites the assassination of President Kennedy, every U.S.-involving war between 1914 and Vietnam, and the 105-day siege of Derry in 1689 by Jacobite forces seeking to restore James II to the English throne:
"You can't talk about real misery until there's bloodshed and broken families. You losing a two-timing woman? I had a worse experience last summer when I hooked a steelhead the size of a railroad tie and lost him after his belly scraped the bank. Even if she was your life, boy, grief is the road to dementia."
David is home for a few weeks before he returns to the campus in Canyon City, in Idaho's Magic Valley, to prepare for camp. An outside linebacker, he hopes to maximize his contribution at the position by packing on muscle without losing any speed or endurance. In pursuit of that goal, he does a 10-mile training run daily, heading uphill (south) along the Lemhi River, a tributary of the Salmon, to the halfway turnaround point. Because of the absence of formal weights at Uncle Joe's small ranch, he's also been told by team trainer Wayne Shipwright to do pushups and chop firewood to build up his arms and shoulders. To strengthen his legs, the trainer suggests pushing a pickup truck, which Joe finds hilarious:
"Make sure you don't shove it into the river," Joe said, still smiling hugely. "Put it in first gear if you want a real workout."
The exchange gives David a chance to muse about Uncle Joe's apparently endless store of knowledge about how things work _ electrical systems, nutrition, human nature, and the physics of matters as apparently diverse as mechanics and sports. As the evening winds down, Uncle Joe tells his nephew once again about the Clout of Clouts, a home run he hit during a pickup baseball game while on a construction job in South America. From that story Joe mentions the Sweet Spot, an always changing place where an athlete is able to exert the maximum force of one moving object _ bat, foot or fist _ against another moving object without experiencing any resistance:
"When you square up a round ball on a round piece of wood, you don't feel anything. No wonder they call it the Sweet Spot."
From that Uncle Joe extrapolates one more piece of wisdom, explaining that sports are important because, "It's as close to immortality as humans can get." The chapter ends with David and the world-wise old man who brought him up seeing eye to eye.


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