Aspinwall author Beard's 'Swing' trip to 1971 Pittsburgh
Phil Beard did a double-take. What he saw wasn't a trick of the late-evening light or an optical illusion.
The man had no legs and moved by swinging himself forward with his arms.
Beard was just a kid, but the situation — he was taking his first solo bus ride home from Pittsburgh — made the image even more pronounced.
“That sort of adds an air of tension to the moment for me to begin with,” Beard says. “Then, for me to encounter a character like this who seems so impossible made that moment stick with me forever.”
“Swing,” Beard's third novel, released as an ebook, is based on that incident from almost 40 years ago. The Aspinwall-based writer and lawyer, 51, first wrote a short story about John Kostka, a man with no legs, while he was in law school. “Swing” eventually became a novel, going through various incarnations and revisions, but the genesis never varied.
Beard writes: “... The man next to me seems to have grown out of the sidewalk, with only his torso having emerged so far. He is hip-deep in the concrete and looks as though he has been there forever, waiting for a young King Arthur, me, perhaps, to pull him free.”
Kostka is the fulcrum of a story set in 1971 Pittsburgh. Henry Graham is a young boy who meets and befriends Kostka, bonding over that season's Pittsburgh Pirates pennant chase and eventual World Series championship.
The memory of those Pirates, of the heroics of Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass and Willie Stargell in an age that grows more innocent with time, are still poignant to Beard.
“There are thousands of other people like me who were either pre-teens or teens in the 1970s,” Beard says. “You're forever a Pittsburgher if you were a kid (in Pittsburgh) in the '70s, no matter where you go.”
It is only in such a setting and time that Henry could bond with John, who is ignored by most adults he meets. But, with children — most notably Henry's sister, Ruth — John's disability is often addressed directly.
The novel goes back and forth between 1971 and Henry's present life as lawyer-turned-writer. While Henry's career arc mirrors a similar transformation in Beard's life, “Swing” is not a roman à clef.
Like his novels “Dear Zoe” and “Lost in the Garden,” Beard is most interested in exploring the dynamics of a contemporary American family. And like many other who grew up in the '60s and '70s, Beard admits he was raised to believe his family was perfect a la “The Brady Bunch,” albeit, he says, “without the deaths or divorces that brought those two families together.”
“It wasn't until I started writing, which, for me, was fairly late in life, that I realized not only wasn't that myth true, it wasn't very interesting, either,” Beard says. “Every person, every family, is perfectly broken in some way. What makes a good family isn't perfection — it's the fact we can love one another despite our brokenness, despite our imperfections. That's where I start when I'm creating characters.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.