THE MIRACLE OF CASTEL DI SANGRO

By Joe McGinniss

Little, Brown. 407 pp. $25

The initial premise of "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" may or may not seem inviting. Joe McGinniss, famous journalist, who spent time covering the O.J. Simpson trial, is looking for "a fresh passion." He finds himself in Italy, in 1994, and falls in love with the game of Italian soccer. He falls madly in love, in fact, and becomes a diehard fan. He begins to follow the fortunes of one small town--Castel di Sangro--which, in the maze of a bazillion teams playing all over the country, actually makes it up out of what we might think of as amateur status and into "Serie B" contention, roughly analogous to our own baseball minor leagues.

Castel di Sangro is out in the Italian boondocks, the Abruzzo, which, in the course of his preliminary reading and research, McGinniss discovered is arid, scorching, poverty-stricken, earthquake prone and filled with "clannish local families" that are "atavistic and introspective." The journalist--in the grip of soccer love and presumably on the lookout for fresh material to write about as well as "fresh passion"--wangles a book deal to live in Castel di Sangro and follow the team for their 38-week 1996-97 season. That these mountain amateurs have made it (by winning enough games) up into professional ranks has already been called a "miracle" in Italian soccer newspapers. McGinniss's exercise in immersion journalism will be to see if the team can stay in Serie B or will be relegated back to amateur status. It's a dream gig, isn't it? To be able to live in Italy for nine months and get paid for it, and--if you're a soccer freak--to get to watch a match once a week and hobnob with the coach and all the players.

Lots of things have been said about McGinniss (whose books include "The Selling of the President 1968" and "Fatal Vision") and whether he's been a credit to his profession. None of that matters too much here. He knows how to tell an arcane story so that the general reader can understand it; he develops characters so adroitly that his nonfiction reads as well as fiction. But the story here isn't about a bunch of hard-luck athletes playing minor league soccer for a little town in the middle of Italian nowhere. It's about obsession and delusion as they appear in certain aspects of the American consciousness.

"The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" is part Jamesian novel, part Hemingway lament. Henry James spent the better part of his literary career describing American innocence and arrogance as it showed up against the sophistication and nuance of European civilization. Joe McGinniss could be Lambert Strether in "The Ambassadors" all over again, swaggering into a foreign country, a man full of confidence, good intentions and the staggering inability to see what's right in front of his nose. Or he could be Ernest Hemingway all over again, appropriating bullfighting for his own, explaining it in worshipful terms to anyone who would listen, and then, decades later, getting all sad and up-in-arms when he followed Ordonez and noticed that the horns of the bulls were being shaved, to cut down on their enthusiasm for goring the matadors. And there went Hemingway's notions about "valor" and "honor" and "doing things all the way up." McGinniss follows these two American traditions, seemingly so unconsciously and stupidly that the reader watches in embarrassed horror and compulsively keeps turning the pages.

McGinniss is indeed a famous journalist, and he "knows" about soccer (after following it for two years). In "Castel di Sangro" he gives numerous interviews to the Italian press; he refers to the team and himself as "we," though--guess what?--he isn't part of the team. He sits in the wrong chair at the team table. He punches the wrong people in the arm. He makes buffoonish jokes to the mob boss who "owns" the region. He second-guesses the team's coach and bad-mouths the guy to everyone in town. He invests these soccer players with excessive virtue that they may or may not have. He becomes the town know-it-all, what Gertrude Stein would have called "the village explainer." He becomes a fool for love or maybe just a fool.

His boys, his team, can do no wrong. What's a little drug-taking or cocaine smuggling or an orgy or two if it's all in the service of this valorous sport? Just as long as they don't cheat! And this, too, is part of an American tradition. The captain of this small town team is fortuitously reading "The Great Gatsby," a novel where an all-American girl with "sun-strained eyes" cheats at golf, and we meet the man who knows the man who fixed the World Series. These are sins, Fitzgerald told us, and, of course, they are.

Some women get foolish when they fall for men, and some men get foolish when they fall for sports. McGinniss insists, through the course of this narrative, that the people he's profiling adhere to a "higher standard," that they live up to his innocent-arrogant notions of what he thinks they should be doing. When they don't, he pitches a tizzy fit. But by this time he's made himself so unpopular that he's almost run out of town. This is a narrative about knowing it all, and knowing absolutely nothing. I wonder if the author realizes it.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.