Cleveland Plain Dealer
Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Minister of Culture
“Greg Cielec is Cleveland’s Mark Twain”
“Another wonderful story from a master story teller.”
The Dayton City Paper
August 29, 2007
When my editor handed me a copy of Greg Cielec’s novella, Home & Away Games, asking me to write a review of it, I honestly cringed. I cringed for several reasons. The first because the title was a reference to football, more identifiable with the high school games then college or professional football. I have to admit I do not like football very much and high school, for me, is a nightmare best left in the misty darkness of my most distant memories. The second aspect of the assignment that made me hesitant was the size of the volume. It was a slim, ninety-three page hardcover, roughly the size of one of my youngest son’s Winnie The Pooh books. Couple that with the fact that Home & Away Games was only the larger, first part of the book. There were two other separate stories included. The first is The Big Game, an excerpt from a larger work entitled My Cleveland Story and the other is a selection called All Laughs and No Tears from an upcoming novel titled A Poem on a Bar Room Wall. How would I ever pull eight hundred words out of that? Hell, that was probably the word count of the whole book! Luckily, as in most aspects of my life, I was wrong.
The novella, while using the emotional backdrop of small town, high school football, deals more with the relationships of a family torn apart by ambition. The story is about Sonny, a passive protagonist, who starts a family just as he is beginning a career as a high school football coach. The back-story develops slowly, detailing Sonny’s rise through the college circuit until he reaches the pros. As he moves further and further up to meet his ambitions, he moves equally farther and farther away from his family, until his wife decides on a divorce, taking herself and their children back to a small, rural town in northwestern Ohio. There she raises the children as best she can and Sonny fits snugly into the role of a checkbook father, bringing the kids out to visit him for lavish vacations for two weeks a year, but deftly unable to actually be a dad.
Everyone’s world suddenly changes when Sonny loses his position as head coach of a major pro-team and travels back to be with his family so that he can regroup. The bulk of the story occurs during one week at the end of the high school football season. The story graphically depicts that trials that Emily, Sonny’s ex-wife and mother to his children, endures while raising the children as a single mother. The story never delves into self-pity nor does it pander to the stereotypical Lifetime network scenario of a woman left alone to struggle against all odds to raise her family. It is a very straightforward, realistic depiction of life, relationships and time.
I was surprised with the amount of detail given to the characters and settings in such a short space. Many, myself included, are far to verbose in their writing, tending to beat their subjects into submission with a litany of adjectives. Greg accomplishes this task in a terse, tight writing style that gets the point across, providing enough detail for the reader to paint the edges of the picture for themselves. I believe that the character flaws are thrown into a sharper contrast without the over indulgent scenery and side-plots that have become commonplace in today’s literature.
The second story, The Big Game focuses on one single basketball game at a suburban high school during the Christmas break in 1986. The story uses the viewpoint of being the first high school game ever broadcast on ESPN nationally as a partial form of narration. This gives a broader storytelling ability to the narrative in that things can be “seen” upon reviewing the tape that would have been wholly missed at the time it occurred. It documents an underdog struggle of a small school basketball team scoring and upset over a far more competitive and historically undefeatable team from Washington, D.C. They accomplished this with the help of the whole town who, throughout the entire game, chanted, ranted, stomped and clapped, giving the home team an immeasurable morale boost while becoming a distraction for the visiting team who found themselves somewhat disoriented by the fervent fans.
The last story, All Laughs and No Tears, had to be my favorite by far. Being quite the aficionado of unrequited love, I found the plot line, characters and inevitable emotions to be extremely realistic as well as familiar. A young man, Jeff, falls into the “love at first sight” abyss only to find that the girl in question, Amy, is already involved with the rich, super-jock. Amy’s own background is one of stature and privilege while Jeff’s is the proverbial kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is barely scrabbling by in college with only the assistance of student aid to prop him up. It almost sounds like John Hughs better call up Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson to review the film treatment for this. Yet Greg Cielec masterfully creates a plausibly fitting scenario whereby the two star crossed lovers can indulge themselves in the more carnal aspects of a relationship. The scene is all at once touching and tragic. I will definitely be reading the full version, A Poem on a Barroom Wall as soon as it becomes available.
This thin novella and accompanying vignettes were a fantastic introduction into Greg’s writing style and subject matter. I actually feel somewhat guilty for my hesitance in reviewing this book for one should never judge a book by…