Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

Fever Pitch is a memoir about Nick Hornby’s obsession with Arsenal, a football (soccer) team in North London. I picked it up for two reasons: because I love everything Nick Hornby writes, and because I want to understand sportsfans and what makes them so passionate. I have 4 brothers who are rabid UK fans, and my lack of sympathy for this obsession is like a barrier between us. I don’t like that and wanted to change it. Books are good for things like that: they enlarge your sympathies.

One of the reasons I didn’t understand my brothers’ feelings about Kentucky is the pain they feel in losing. I have seen them shed tears. I have given them a wide berth for two to three days following a season-ending loss, as they grieve. Why care so much when it is so painful? This pain is something Hornby dwells on at length: the agony of watching a beloved team lose, of watching them make mistake after mistake and knowing they’re better than that. Hornby kind of wallows in the pleasure of this pain. For example, he says that the indignation fans feel about a bad call by a referee can be pleasant, as long as things turn out ok. He obsessively catalogues the miseries of successive losing seasons. Being a beleaguered fan gives him an identity; he wears a badge of defiance. He says that sticking by the team during their bad years (and bad decades) is work that earns a fan the right to celebrate their long-awaited victories.

Hornby finally did explain to me the many, many attractions of watching sports. He waxes poetic about the aesthetic beauty of athletic feats. He describes losing himself and being one with the crowd, the “communal ecstasy” that unifies the multitude in the hushed moment before the roar. He feels so connected to the crowd, that though most of them are strangers, he hates to miss a home game because he is afraid of missing something and being “behind” on the soap-opera-like story of the season.

And then there’s the adrenaline high. Hornby vividly describes exactly why watching a game provides a level of intensity in the experience that people can find in very few other places. In nowhere but the stadium can he find so much “potential for unexpected delirium.” There is a surprise about to happen every minute, and when the joy of a goal washes over a fan, it happens so suddenly that he is helpless against it. Sometimes, there is even a possibility of a once-in-a-lifetime championship.

I think a soccer fan would have appreciated the book more than I did. I skimmed many of Hornby’s play-by-play descriptions, since the players and their movements were kind of meaningless to me. Each chapter was focused on a particular game and what was going on in Hornby’s life at the time. (I was kind of in awe of his encyclopedic and videographic memory for these dozens of games, some dating back 40 years.) I was more interested in Hornby himself and his fan behaviors than in the team. It’s not my favorite book of Hornby’s, but there are funny moments and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves a sportsfan.

I understand the attraction of being a fan better now. My brothers’ fascination with basketball no longer seems so pointless and absurd to me. But that doesn’t mean I want to join them. If anything, Hornby’s book is a cautionary tale. He gives a clear picture of both the joys and the sorrows of life as an ardent fan, and implies several times that if he had to do it over again, he might not have gone to that first game. He goes on about how much better and easier life would be if he didn’t have this obsession; the people in his life treat it like a disability that they must work around, planning events and activities based on Arsenal’s home game schedule. I’m not really interested in that lifestyle. But I appreciate that my brothers enjoy it.

They made a movie called Fever Pitch with Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, but it’s about the Boston Red Sox, so it can bear little resemblance to Hornby’s book. The memoir also has no romantic story arc at all, unless you want to read the whole thing as a love letter to Arsenal. For that reason, I feel no urge to watch the film for the sake of comparing it to the book. It seems to have served as loose inspiration for the movie, though, so I hope Hornby got a nice check.

In searching for the book picture, I found another, earlier British romantic comedy based on the book, with Colin Firth. That one I would be interested in. But it’s not on Netflix instant or at the library. [insert British expletive here]

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