Frank Bill and the new Midwestern lit

[The American Prospect]

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In the latest issue of The American Prospect, I’ve got a long review of Frank Bill’s novel Donnybrook. I also consider a small but growing number of Midwestern fiction writers, including Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and write a bit about growing up there myself. (That’s my family’s house, in the picture above.)

One of the harder things to do in this review was to articulate what exactly these writers are up to — hard because, for whatever reason, they’re not too keen on articulating it themselves. What I ultimately settled on is that they’re trying to develop a new literary realism — and, more than that, to revive a literary naturalism.

Here’s Pollock in an interview

I can go out here and pick up the local newspaper, and bring it in here, and I can show you things that are just as bad or worse, probably worse, than anything that’s in my book. So what’s the big deal? I mean, I am maybe exploring something that a lot of people don’t want to think about, but people do live like this.

And here’s Bill:

For me to write all that stuff, I didn’t really have a general idea, or theme when I wrote. I just wrote what interested me about society and class as a whole. People who are still here, but you don’t see them or hear about them anymore. You read about them in small town newspapers, people who are jobless, and they disappear all over the place. You don’t read about people living in cars or camping spots in books.

The realism seems obvious enough — they’re making an effort to undercut our cultural assumptions about the Midwest. Where it crosses into naturalism, I think, is when it declines to grant its characters any inner psychology. Check out my review for more on this. And if you want to know more about Bill, read this great cover story in Indianapolis’s alt-weekly. Bill talks a lot about how, when he started writing fiction, he wrote pages and pages about the environments and nothing else. It doesn’t get more naturalistic than that!

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Xavier’s next great team

[Cincinnati CityBeat]

As part of their cover package on the NCAAs, Cincinnati CityBeat asked me to write about Xavier’s lost season. The Musketeers didn’t just whiff on the NCAAs — they whiffed on the NIT, too. But as I argue in my story, Xavier’s future, for next season and for the next decade, looks bright.

If you’re interested in more on Xavier, check out a long profile I wrote of head coach Chris Mack last year (with more info here and here).

And in the small chance you’re interested in still more Xavier, check out Shannon Russell’s excellent interview with Mack. You’ll see that he’s the most honest coach in Cincinnati sports and, in my opinion, a big reason why Xavier’s in great shape.

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A profile of Vito Montelli

[New York Times]

In today’s New York Times, I’ve got a long profile of Vito Montelli, who coached the boys’ basketball team at St. Joseph High School for 50 years — and to 11 Connecticut state championships.

Montelli’s a great character, and you should also check out the photos by my friend Chris Capozziello. But one of the things that drew me to this story was a chance to think about a larger question: why high school sports aren’t as big in New England as they are elsewhere in the country. We had to cut a lot of that material, and I hope to write about it again in the future. But I will say that while New England high school athletics occur on a smaller scale, there are pockets of passion and commitment.

One of those is at the gym in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where I watched Montelli’s successor, Chris Watts, coach (and win) his first game. Ridgefield is not a traditional state power, but a couple years ago it hired a new athletic director and coach named Carl Charles. Charles used to be an assistant under Montelli, and he’s built up a solid program — and a serious home-court advantage.

Like most Connecticut high schools, Ridgefield has a small gym — there wasn’t enough room for the St. Joe’s cheerleaders, which meant they sat behind the bench — but at least a quarter of the seats were devoted to the Tigers’ Lair, the school’s college-quality student section. The Tigers’ Lair boasts a Twitter feed, a collection of inventive cheers (when Watts walked out, they chanted “Vito Montelli”), and one of those custom Big Heads signs for Kurt Steidl, the senior star who is heading to the University of Vermont on a scholarship. Now, I’ve been to a lot of high school basketball games, including a bunch in basketball-crazy Indiana, but Ridgefield and the Tiger’s Lair had one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever seen. It was a fun game for a lot of reasons. (In the fourth quarter, Montelli, who was sitting next to the cheerleaders, motioned a St. Joe’s assistant over: “Let Chris know he has two fouls he can give.”) But most of all, it was fun because of some great basketball — Watts didn’t need any help, as he masterfully coached St. Joe’s to a 48-42 win — and because of some crazy fans. In fact, I’d stack those fans up against those from anywhere in the country.

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A profile of Aroldis Chapman (plus an annotated bibliography!)

[Cincinnati Magazine]

Just in time for spring training, you can read my long profile of Aroldis Chapman in the March issue of Cincinnati Magazine. While the Reds did not cooperate with the story, I still talked to a ton of people. I may have even figured Chapman out — or at least realized that no one’s going to figure him out. He’s got a strange pattern of isolating himself, whether that means living far from the ballpark; avoiding friendships with teammates; or spending thousands of dollars at chintzy tourist dives, instead of at the Miami Heat-approved bars you might expect.

Then there’s the speeding ticket(s), the stripper(s), and the extremely serious $24-million lawsuit Chapman’s facing. To learn more about all of it, read my story here. And when you’re finished, check out the annotated bibliography I’ve put together — because Chapman’s the kind of subject who demands further study.

  • Aroldis Chapman, ESPN attraction: As I mention in my profile, ESPN (and the very talented Jorge Arangure Jr.) covered Aroldis in depth right after his defection: an ESPN.com story, an ESPN The Magazine story, and a TV segment. I relied extensively on these stories, but you’ll find tons more in them. For instance: “‘Pujols?’ [Chapman] says. ‘Who is that?’ When asked which big leaguers he’s heard of, Chapman names David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez,Alfonso Soriano, Alex Rodriguez — and there’s one other. ‘What’s the name of that Yankees shortstop?’ he says.”
  • Aroldis Chapman, sabermetrician: The other reporter who did great work on Chapman’s early days is Melissa Segura at Sports Illustrated. Check out one of her stories here, in which Chapman, way back in 2009, addresses starting versus closing: “Chapman expresses reluctance to move to the bullpen, though he worked as a closer for part of the 2006-07 National Series season. ‘It went OK, but I like being a starter better,’ he says. ‘The difference in starting the game is that you can impact the game greatly. You can pitch a lot of innings. As a closer, you only get one or two innings. You pitch more frequently, but I don’t have a lot of interest in being a closer.'”
  • Aroldis Chapman, reluctant interview: Once Chapman signed with the Reds, he stopped talking as deeply and openly as he did to Arangure and Segura. It’s hard to tell whether this comes from Chapman or the Reds (or both). But the reporter who’s consistently gotten the best quotes — a reporter who, unlike the Reds’ two or three beat reporters, speaks Spanish — is Jorge L. Ortiz. See here and here and here, among others. That last link also has an interesting quotation from Walt Jocketty: “When Dr. (Timothy) Kremchek did the physical and did the MRI of the shoulder and the elbow, he said it was unbelievable how pristine it was.” That’s interesting because the Reds have DL’ed or benched Chapman several times for shoulder problems — or “shoulder” problems. A couple sources I talked to suggested that those DL trips were more the result of mental issues than physical ones.
  • Aroldis Chapman, automobile enthusiast: Any Reds fan knows that Chapman owns several sweet cars, but I’m not sure people realize how into those cars he is. Check out this detailed story in Rides Magazine on the $40,000-plus Chapman’s spent customizing his not-too-shabby-from-the-factory Lamborghini Murcielago. Or contemplate the fact that Chapman has found time to upgrade his license plates with each record-setting pitch: his vanity plates have alluded to velocities of 102, 103, 104, and 105 MPH. Or marvel at his multimillion dollar home with its five-car garage. Or, best of all: watch this simultaneously amazing and terrifying video of him zooming around downton Cincinnati.
  • Aroldis Chapman, dubious record holder: Chapman’s most recent vanity plate is “MR 106,” but as Jeff Passan points out in his excellent Yahoo! story, it’s unlikely that the 106 MPH pitch actually hit 106 MPH.
  • Aroldis Chapman, troubled soul?: If you want to know more about Chapman’s off-field issues, check out Cincinnati CityBeat‘s comprehensive cover story from last summer.
  • Aroldis Chapman, control artist: I analyze Chapman’s remarkable 2012 at some length — especially his newfound control. For more on that, check out this terrific FanGraphs interview with catcher Ryan Hanigan: “It was simpler for him as a closer. I was like, ‘Look man, throw as many strikes as you can.’ You have to really understand what your check points are in your delivery, because if you get just a little out of whack with your mechanics, you’re going to be wild. He knows that, and really got it down to where he could stay consistent. He knew what to do when he was starting to miss. He knew why and how to fix it. But that’s not as hard when you have to throw 15-18 pitches. When you have to throw 100, it’s a different ballgame in terms of keeping your body in control.”
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Mike Pence’s fiscal (and total) conservatism

In my Indianapolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence, which you can read here, I pointed out that Indiana’s new governor has taken “vocal conservative stands on just about every issue: foreign policy, fiscal policy, social matters, and more.” Yet the media continue to fixate on those social matters (e.g., Pence’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood). To me, that sells Pence-the-congressman short — even as it also makes Pence-the-candidate seem even more slippery.

Anyway, I wanted to review Pence’s fiscal bona fides, which seem especially relevant as he rolls out his first two-year budget at the State House. Pence became a congressman in 2000 — in the age of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative,” which, as Pence loved to point out, “ultimately [is] another way of saying ‘big-government conservative.”

Again and again, Pence fought for his small-government ideals. The only exception I found, and it’s a partial one, was the federal Farm Bill. Pence’s Sixth District, which covers much of southern Indiana, receives more Farm Bill money than any other district in the country. It created an obvious dilemma for Pence, and one of his staffers told me that, early on, at least, their office took a flexible tack. “Mike would talk about fighting over the size of the pie,” the aide told me, “but once the pie was set he’d fight to get his district as big a slice as he could.”

This method applied to the Farm Bill and to earmarks, as well. But Pence ultimately modified his approach, even though it meant working against his constituents’ interests. By the spring of 2008, he was refusing to vote for Farm Bill. “It has always been my ambition to support Indiana farmers,” Pence said. “But I’ve always sought to do that in a way that protects our federal budget and protects the American taxpayer at large.” Stands like this are why I suggested, in a previous blog post, that Pence has “a more consistent and coherent world-view . . . [than] other Bush-era conservatives like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.”

Stands like this are also why Pence became the chairman of the powerful (and extremely conservative) Republican Study Committee. In fact, one source told me that Pence did such a bang-up job that the organization changed its term limits so he could stay in power. “I don’t believe the mission of the RSC is to achieve conservative legislation,” Pence has said. “I believe it is the objective of our committee to ensure that conservative values are given their proper weight with leadership as it seeks the equilibrium of getting a bill to 218 votes.”

(This, by the way, is one of many places where you can see why John Gregg, Pence’s gubernatorial opponent, ran such a poor campaign. Gregg loved attacking Pence for not passing bills — but far more telling was the reason he didn’t pass bills, with that reason being that Pence was a far-right legislator.)

Pence and the RSC caused plenty of trouble for the compassionate crowd. The best example came in 2005, when Pence made a very public demand that any Hurricane Katrina relief be offset by spending cuts. (It was an early version of what we’re seeing today with Hurricane Sandy.) Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay called Pence in for a meeting — what Robert Novak described as “a closed-door auto-da-fe, with GOP leaders as the inquisitors and Pence as the heretic.”

That’s a pretty great description, but the Washington Post did Novak one better. After that meeting, the paper reported, the congressman “had the look of a hunted man.” Pence was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Young America Foundation. The topic? “Conservative leadership in Congress” and its “massive spending splurges.” But Pence had a change of heart. Instead, he told the crowd, “I believe in the men and women who lead the House of Representatives and the Senate. I see them as men and women of integrity and principle, who work every day to bring the ideals of our Founders into the well of the people’s house.” Then he left abruptly. According to the Post, Pence didn’t even stick around for the Q&A he’d agreed to, which left the Young America crew in a tough spot: “Unfortunately, the congressman will be unable to answer questions today,” the host said. “But we are going to have a door prize.”

Now, you can interpret this event in one of two ways: 1) Pence caved to Republican leadership; or 2) Pence was so good at needling Republican leadership that, eventually, they had to go nuclear on him. I’m inclined toward Option 2 — and not just because that makes Pence’s Young America speech a rare (and revealing) bit of unscripted drama. Pence never stopped needling. In 2010, he was one of very few Republicans to admit that attacking Democrats for their (alleged) cuts to Medicare was dumb and incoherent. Then there’s this, from Michael Grunwald’s excellent book The New New Deal:

[Eric] Cantor and Mike Pence were both part of the conservative Republican Study Committee as well as the leadership team. But as one aide put it, Pence rolled out of bed thinking about being a conservative, while Cantor woke up thinking about being a leader. Infrastructure reflected that difference. In leadership meetings, Cantor argued that the Republican stimulus alternative should go big on public works . . . Pence pushed back: Aren’t we supposed to be against government spending?

All this to say that when people portray Pence as a social crusader, they obscure an important point: he’s a crusader, full stop.

Or at least he was. But there’s one more thing worth noting here: more and more Republicans share Pence’s comprehensive ideology. He’s what the Pew Research Center calls a “Staunch Conservative.” In its political typology survey, Pew highlights “a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives . . . [who] take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues — on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns.” Yet Pew didn’t identify this bloc until recently, in 2011. In other words, as in so much else with the Republican party, Mike Pence was way out in front.

Posted in A Mike Pence Primer, Features, Politics | 7 Comments

Mike Pence’s religion

Time for my second supplemental post on Mike Pence. You can read the original Indianapolis Monthly profile here, and near the end of it I describe asking Pence for some specifics about his personal faith. It’s a fair and vital question for two reasons: because Pence comes with a fascinating (and slightly messy) religious past; and because that past continues to shape every choice he makes. Yet all Pence would say to me is “I’m a pretty ordinary Christian.” He even ducked my question about where he goes to church, and I think it’s worth comparing that vagueness to some of his older answers about his faith. Indeed, as Pence has become more prominent, he’s also become more committed to saying absolutely nothing of interest — even on a topic about which he’d presumably want to share.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1994, the Indianapolis Business Journal published a terrific profile of the 35-year-old Pence. There, he described his faith quite openly: “I made a commitment to Christ. I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” You don’t see that combo every day, even in Indiana, but the Journal had caught Pence at a time when he was oscillating between his upbringing and his evangelical faith. Pence’s parents raised their children Catholic, and Pence served as an altar boy and went to a parochial school. In college, however, he fell in with a nondenominational student fellowship group — he wouldn’t tell me which one — and made his “commitment to Christ.” That didn’t end his commitment to Catholicism, and when Pence graduated in 1981 he worked as a full-time Catholic youth minister and even applied to D.C.’s Catholic University. The plan was to become a priest, he told the Journal, and while it didn’t work out Pence was still attending mass in the late ’80s, when met his wife at Indy’s St. Thomas Aquinas.

At some point in the mid ’90s, Pence and his young family switched to an evangelical mega church. (In 1995, he told the Indianapolis Star that they attended the city’s Grace Evangelical Church.) Whatever the route, though, the destination is pretty clear: Pence’s evangelical faith has informed every aspect of his political career. Here are a few of many, many examples, drawn from his early years in Congress:

  • During the 2000 election, the Star described Pence’s debate with Democrat Bob Rock: “Pence, who said he attends an evangelical Christian church, asked Rock, a Catholic, if he would support Richard Gephardt as speaker of the House if the Democrats gain control, even though Gephardt supports abortion rights. ‘I would never support him on the issue of abortion,’ said Rock. ‘I am as pro-life as you are and that is not an issue in this campaign.'”
  • In 2001, the newly-elected Pence talked to The Hill about his marriage: “He never dines alone with a woman who is not his wife. And when his wife is absent, he never attends events where alcohol flows. ‘If there’s alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me,’ Pence said. As it happens, Pence frequently turns down invitations for drinks or dinner from male colleagues. ‘It’s about building a zone around your marriage,’ he observed.”
  • In 2002, Pence talked to Congressional Quarterly about Israel: “‘My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,’ Pence said in an interview March 18. ‘In the Bible, God promises Abraham, “Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.” So, in some way, I don’t fully understand [U.S. policy]. I believe our own national security is tied to our willingness to stand with the people of Israel.'”
  • In 2003, Pence talked to Human Events about whether or not he could block Medicare Part D: “I don’t know, but God has surprised me a few times since I got here, and I hope He’ll surprise me again.”

Today, there’s no question that Pence’s religion continues to shape Pence’s politics. Andrew Phipps, a Hoosier politico who also hosts gospel TV and radio shows, put it to me this way: “I don’t think Mike will ever forsake his core values — the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and our great heritage of faith, family, and freedom.”

What has changed is Pence’s willingness to discuss just what makes up that religion. This has always struck me as somewhat shady — in a case like Pence’s, it’s essentially a politician who refuses to disclose his politics. Then again, the pattern now applies to almost every subject with Pence. He used to be a frank and fascinating interview. In 1994, he described his pre-Reagan politics like this: “[Carter] was a good Christian. Beyond that, there was a sense of, ‘Why would you elect a movie star?'” In 1995, he openly criticized Rush Limbaugh: “Conservative media, including Rush, have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to making a distinction between differences in public policy and personal differences.”

Someone might be able to get Pence to say things this detailed and interesting today, but I sure couldn’t. Instead, I got a guy — a guy who will likely run for president in 2016 or 2020 —  who did this:

Then something strange happened. Mike Pence, the guy who, the night before, had seemed to shake every single hand in Lucas Oil Stadium, the guy whose aides budget extra time in his schedule because he’s such a talker (“He’s Irish,” one of them explained)—Mike Pence, exactly 20 minutes into a 45-minute interview, said, “We gotta roll in about five, don’t we?”

Posted in A Mike Pence Primer, Hoosiers, Politics | 22 Comments

Mike Pence’s “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner”

On Friday, I linked to my long Indianpolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence. Today, I’ll post the first of four supplemental blog posts on Indiana’s new governor.

While Pence served in Congress from 2000 to 2012, he took his first two shots at national office in 1988 and 1990. In my profile, I note how nasty those campaigns became, and we could spend hours piling up examples. “Mike Pence’s gutter brand of politics has sunk to a new low,” read one editorial in the Shelbyville News, “and for the Pence campaign, that’s saying something.”

In the aftermath of those races, Pence’s reputation bottomed out. But in the summer of 1991 he published a short essay called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.” The essay, which has not been available online (and which I’m posting in full, after the jump), offered a savvy first step in the rehabilitation of his political career. After all, most journalists today cite it, then glide right past the campaigns’ actual events. (Check out the “Confessions” Google trail here.)

That doesn’t mean those journalists have read the essay. “I haven’t read it,” one source told me, right before he expounded on its text, “but I’ve heard the general gist.” Given the way “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” is frequently described, I’d guess this is true of most Hoosier journalists and political insiders. Because what you’ll notice, if you do read it, is that it’s not much of a confession. Pence sounds like he’s still smarting a bit from ’88 and ’90. He shows remorse, but not about his slimy tactics — instead, it’s about the missed opportunity to argue for his political beliefs.

Now there’s certainly something laudable about this second point, and from ’91 up to his recent run for governor Pence rarely wasted any similar opportunities. During that time, however, he also began describing his early regrets in a striking new way. “My faith says if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “My response, after being attacked by my opponent, was to empty the silos on this guy.” I talked to multiple people close to Pence who dispute his chronology — that the opponent started it — but the key point here is that Pence started framing his political conversion in terms of forgiveness and sadness. That’s not what you’ll find in the 1991 essay, which you can see by clicking on “continue reading.” But it is a perfect example of how Pence will simplify and even rewrite his life narrative — something we’ll get into in my next supplemental post.

Continue reading

Posted in A Mike Pence Primer, Hoosiers, Politics | 26 Comments