Mark DiIonno (SASN ’84) has had a remarkable 40-year career as a journalist, starting as a night editor for the defunct News Tribune of Woodbridge while a junior at Rutgers University–Newark, then moving on to the New York Post as a sports columnist before joining The Star-Ledger in 1990, where he spent 28 years as a features writer and editor, local news editor and columnist. He was a Pulitzer finalist for news commentary in 2013 for a collection of columns on Hurricane Sandy, the death of Tyler Clemeti and other New Jersey issues, and has won the New Jersey Press Association Award for column writing six times. He’s also penned three nonfiction books and two novels, including his latest, Gods of Wood and Stone.
The new work of fiction is a story of two middle-age men from disparate worlds whose lives collide during an induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Joe Grudek, a working-class hero and star athlete from Union, NJ, is a beloved former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who receives the ultimate Major League honor while benefiting from—and feeling alienated by—the massive commercialization and celebrity worship affecting his sport. Horace Mueller, a blacksmith and historian from Cooperstown, is similarly out of sync with modern times, pushing back against the digital revolution and demeaning commercial culture engulfing him and his family, along with the sport-celebrity mania so prevalent in the U.S.
The book, which has gotten excellent reviews, has been called a “searing portrait of honor and masculinity, sport and celebrity, marriage and parenthood,” and a poignant indictment of modern American life.
We caught up with DiIonno, a Summit, NJ, native and adjunct professor of Journalism at RU-N, to talk about his latest novel as he embarks on an extensive book-promotion tour throughout New Jersey.
Your new novel is about the disillusionment of its two main characters as they navigate the challenging terrain of middle age. How did you come up with this story and these characters?
As a sportswriter, I got to see a real change in the triangle of athlete-fan-press relations. When I started there was no ESPN, and sports was more or less a cultural side dish. But as 24/7 sports networks evolved, so did the marketing and popularity of our games, especially the three major sports. The players changed, as did the demands of the fans and press. The main character of the book, Joe Grudeck, is one of the last remaining archetype of "old-school" athletes. I knew guys like him when I covered sports, and when they retire they are often left adrift. His narrative is a study in the dehumanization and alienation of celebrity.
The novel is set in Cooperstown, where the modern societal aspects of runaway sports worship and historians’ battle for relevance converge.
When I left sports writing, I immersed myself in New Jersey history. The history industry is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the sports and entertainment juggernaut. I met many volunteers and low-paid re-enactors in places like Waterloo Village [in Byram Township, NJ]. The other main character, Horace Mueller, works at a living museum as a blacksmith, which was the embodiment of masculinity from the ancient discovery of flint and iron ore until the industrial revolution. But in the mid-19th century he was usurped by the athlete, when professional baseball and college football began and masculinity was measured on playing fields. The novel is set in Cooperstown, where the modern societal aspects of runaway sports worship and historians’ battle for relevance converge.
As you’ve made apparent, these two main characters have very different lifestyles and values but share a strong dislike for contemporary society. Do you think these themes will play well with millennials and Gen Z folks, or will this novel appeal mainly to those of us who are old enough to have lived through these changes?
That’s a loaded question. If the millennials and Gen Z folks read and have an interest in cultures outside social media, they might get a lot out of it. This book was in production long before Donald Trump was elected president or the #Me Too movement caught fire. But there are elements of the rural-urban cultural clash that impacted the election. Grudeck is haunted by a #Me Too moment from deep in his playing past. Horace Mueller sees the corporatization of America as a threat to individual self-sufficiency and happiness. He sees constant digital connectivity as disconnection from the world under our feet and in front of our eyes. These are themes that know no generational bounds. If anything, younger people should see these lions sneaking through the grass.
As a reporter, how different is writing fiction, and what are the special challenges that distinguish it from doing your reportorial and nonfiction work?
All of my fiction, including a novel I am currently working on about police PTSD, stems from my work as a reporter. Fiction allows for deeper development of character and sense of place than newspaper work. In fact, that is part of the theme of my first novel, The Last Newspaperman. The media only scratches the surface, be it of a person's true character or the events leading up to the newsworthy event. The media tends to paint with wide, black-and-white brush strokes, failing to delve into the background and nuances that give true perspective.
Can you give us a little preview of the police PTSD novel?
I embedded with the Essex County homicide unit in July 2011 and produced a piece of journalism called “The Killing Cycle.” Some of those cops had seen hundreds of dead bodies in 20-year careers. I also wrote a lot about veterans and PTSD. I saw similarities between soldiers in urban warfare and the stresses of our city cops. I think it’s an important subject that humanizes both professions.
We look forward to reading that piece of fiction as well. Thanks for sitting down with us.