Monday, September 24, 2012

In Praise of Brittle Innings

I have always loved baseball books, and am delighted at the reprinting of Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings by Fairwood Press.  Beautifully packaged and presented, this edition is a worthy addition to your library if you are fond of historical fiction, fantasy, coming-of-age tales, and/or baseball. 
About baseball: people who malign the sport for being “slow and boring” do not understand its character.  It is a vehicle of lore, a mythic country where the gods roam the outfield and the legends gather: the colossal home runs from Ruth to Reggie, the game-winning blasts by Mazeroski, Fisk, and Gibson, the wounded kings like Tony Conigliaro and Herb Score (figures straight out of Frazer’s Golden Bough: if you don’t believe me, check the history), the strange recluses like Koufax and Carlton, alone and retiring (sometimes literally) at the height of glory.  But it is more than celebrity, than the on-field arête: it is the sandlot game of my childhood, playing catch with Carl Williams (who was no athlete but was an all-star father), and brushing against all that continuity and lore.
We have a fine tradition of baseball novels.  Usually the good ones tend toward the mythic (Malamud’s The Natural, Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, Philip Roth’s Great American Novel), but these sometimes fail to capture the feel of the game, its tactile crouch at shortstop, the smell of neatsfoot oil on a new glove, the leisure of innings in the field.  For that, you go to Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly, but when you go there, you do it at the sacrifice of the mythic undertones and overtones so wonderful in the other books. 
What I guess I’m getting at is the ambition of Brittle Innings, which tries to do all the things a baseball novel does and succeeds famously for the most part.
Daniel Boles, our narrator, is introduced early, but not immediately; we begin with a sportswriter’s search for Boles, then launch into the focal story.  Fifty pages in, I was wondering why Bishop had begun with a framed narrative, but you should give baseball novels some slack: their best vehicle is the long, meandering 19th-century-novel way of telling, and eventually the book comes around when you merge with the story, then, much later, come to understand the device at the book’s outset. 
At any rate, the book follows Boles and his mysterious roommate, Jumbo Clerval, through a season in the 1940s minors, when pro baseball was peopled with athletes who would have never made a career (minimal though it was) had it not been for much of the talent on the rosters being deployed to the European and Pacific Theatres of the war.  The book unfolds slowly as a kind of Huck-Finn-meets-Dizzy-Dean account, consistently entertaining and darkening effectively as the reader begins to realize that there is something about Jumbo Clerval…
No spoilers here.  As a matter of fact, the mid-book revelation did not surprise me, but I did not care in the least.  Brittle Innings is not so much heart-poundingly plotted as it is slowly unfolding, an impressive mixture of genre-crossing and simple good read.  Buy the ticket, fans:  there are box seats here with good views of both foul poles, and the players are waiting.  Brittle Innings is my pick this month, just like Rose Streif’s Bearkeeper was last month out.  Get them both.

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