Book Review: Rob Zaleski's 'Searching for Sal' Asks the Big Questions

Book Review: Rob Zaleski’s ‘Searching for Sal’ Asks the Big Questions

'Searching for Sal' by former sports columnist Rob Zaleski was published in February 2012.
Courtesy of Steve Apps

In simpler times, Chip Hilton and Gil Thorp and our other sports fiction heroes wrestled with pressing issues like batting slumps, rookie mistakes or benching the star quarterback for breaking team rules.

Now, sports are just as complicated as real life. In Searching For Sal, a novel by former Madison (Wis.) Capital Times sports columnist Rob Zaleski, the big questions really are Big Questions.

Is there life after death? Do our dearly departed watch our every move from The Great Beyond? And if so, can they affect the outcome of sporting events in the living world?

Golf is at the core of this unusual tale but as you can already tell, Searching For Sal is a different kind of sports book.

This is a light-hearted story about two long-time friends who are also hopeless hackers and golf fanatics. There’s Sal, the overweight diner owner and a true believer in the whole religious package, and there’s Nate Zavoral, the author’s stand-in, a reformed sportswriter-turned-teacher and agnostic and self-proclaimed “recovering Catholic.”

Their recurring 19th-hole debates over God and church and The Hereafter lead to an unusual pact: When one of them dies, he will signal the survivor from The Other Side by helping him make a hole-in-one on the first par-3 hole at their local hangout, Turtle Creek, during the survivor’s first post-funeral round of golf. It would be proof of life after death and non-believer Nate promises to make it his mission to tell the world if, in fact, he gets that signal from Sal. “Hell, I’ll personally call The Pope,” Nate swears.

They dutifully put the pact in writing, old-school style, of course, using a typewriter.

The unthinkable happens five years later when Sal suffers a fatal heart attack. No surprise there, given his substantial beer gut, except that it happens in an outdoor hot tub with a hot young waitress who works for him. How Sal scored with a gorgeous 20-something is a miracle in itself. Because Sal passed away two days after Christmas in 2004, The Pact was put on hold until spring tediously arrived in Wisconsin four months later.

Then, Nate assembles three of the duo’s old golfing pals for the official trip to Turtle Creek and the big experiment at the third hole, a 170-yard par 3 to an elevated green whose putting surface can’t be seen from the tee. Anyway, Nate nervously hits last and skanks his hybrid club well to the right. Oh, well… wait a minute! The ball caroms off a tree like a pinball, bounces in the direction of the flagstick and disappears over the rise. It didn’t … it couldn’t have … did it? The foursome rushes up the slope to the green and holy you-know-what, Nate’s ball is in the cup.

It’s a miracle. Or is it just a miraculous golf shot?

Nate’s unique tale gets a writeup in the local paper the next day, followed by a spot on a Madison TV station’s newscast. The wire services pick up on the story and it goes worldwide. It all begins to snowball after that, especially when Nate, who enjoys his modest, private life, agrees to appear with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and becomes one of those 15-minutes-of-fame celebrities that he despises. (In a deft touch by Zaleski, Leno is just as funny during Nate’s guest spot as he usually is on his actual show. In other words, not very funny.)

A modern media frenzy takes off and engulfs the still dubious Nate. Even Rev. Jerry Falwell and the late Pope John Paul make cameos as a golf shot becomes a forum for debate on the Hereafter.

The skeptical Nate, troubled by his newfound attention, tries to recreate his ace in an attempt to get another signal from Sal and absolute confirmation. No such luck because, reality reminds him, he’s a lousy golfer.

After eight ugly swings on the tee, he gives up and returns to ponder his dilemma. Does Nate really believe or should he give up all hope of privacy to live up to his promise to Sal to spread The Word?

Searching For Sal is a fun, compelling tale that is light reading despite the seemingly heavy subject matter. There’s a clever O. Henry-like twist waiting to blindside readers somewhere along the way, but to say more would reveal too much.

This is not Al Michaels territory — do you believe in miracles? Think WWGTD — What Would Gil Thorp Do?