Guys Like Us (Viking, $11.95) is a first novel by Tom Lorenz. It is being published as most first novels are—very quietly. If I had any say in the matter, it would be issued to the thunder of drums and the blare of trumpets. It is a novel filled to the brim with joy and desperation, with real laughter and real tears, and with some of the most engaging, heartbreaking characters one could hope to meet.
It's about the failing marriage of Buddy and Jo Barnes and the softball team that is driving them apart: the Stickmen, a hotshot club in a Chicago amateur league, a bunch of wild and crazy guys who party as they play, with gusto. The conflict is elemental—the intimacies of marriage against the intimacies of male bonding.
Buddy is a flake of the first order. He keeps a barber's chair in the middle of the living room, where he sits wearing fake glasses that have spinning eyeballs and grooves on pop music coming over his headphones. He has just been fired from his job as a custodian with the Chicago Park District "for leaping out of a lawn mower into a tree." He thinks of himself as a "Renaissance Guy," and he's searching for "his true calling, which wasn't easy to find in this age of affirmative action, double-digit inflation, and the superabundant work force."
Jo, by contrast, is quiet; she was shortchanged in the self-confidence department. She plugs away at a dull job and yearns for more: "She was surrounded by people who were about to take off. They would sip drinks at 25,000 feet, leaf through important papers at 500 mph. She herself was at ground level, going nowhere. Here she was, almost thirty years old, and never had been out of the Midwest, never even been in the sky. It made her wonder about all the other things she was missing."
When Buddy comes home, hours late, for his own 30th birthday dinner and reeking of booze consumed in the company of the Sticks, it is more than she can take. She throws him out and slowly begins to shape a new life.
Buddy just goes back to his buddies. His efforts to find a new job are halfhearted; he's more interested in hanging around with the guys and playing for all the marbles on the field. And on that field, he is sensational:
"Buddy himself was having his greatest season. He was unconscious at the dish, a stroking machine. His bullets dissected outfields, infielders were burned by his sizzling shots. He even gooned a few. High and tight, low and away—it didn't make any difference. It didn't even matter what stick he used. He just picked one out of the rack, went up there, and swung at what he saw. He saw yellow melons, big balloons. He went with the pitch.... He ran hard, thinking at least two."
Buddy is an overgrown boy; Jo is trying to grow up: "...she refused to build a life around the fancy dance of a softball man." When Buddy's life suddenly takes a desperate turn and he tries to come back to her, he finds that things have changed; how he deals with those changes is the novel's climax.
Guys Like Us is an unpretentious novel, and that is one of its many charms. It is also outrageously funny, and tender when tenderness is called for. Tom Lorenz uses sports-page clichès lovingly; they give the novel a jaunty, self-mocking air. He has knocked the old sphere right out of the park.