Thursday, August 12, 2010

The good, the bad, and the unrealistic in new baseball novels

On Tuesday I posted my review of Stephen King's Blockade Billy. Today we're going to take a look at some of this year's other baseball fiction offerings.

At the top of the heap stands Jeff Gillenkirk's Home, Away, in which pitcher Jason Thibodeaux is forced to make a decision between his major league career and his son. He winds up walking away from a $42 million contract with the Rockies to step back into his son's life and steer the teenager back on track. Gillenkirk's characters are very real; their anger, emotion, and weaknesses are all authentic, and the baseball details are great. This was no accident, as he did a lot of research on both families and baseball.

I reviewed Home, Away for Baseball America earlier this year. Check that out if you're interested in learning more about the book, which I highly recommend. This was one of the best baseball novels of the past several years.

This spring I also reviewed Billy Lombardo's The Man with Two Arms. Here we meet Danny Granville, a young boy whose father grooms him as an ambidextrous switch-pitcher. He's so good he almost never loses, or even gives up a run. He rockets through the Cubs system in a matter of months (or weeks, if you do the math, which the author didn't) and becomes the ace of Chicago's rotation as a rookie, until his freakish secret is exposed by an overeager journalist.

The Man with Two Arms suffers from too loose a grasp with reality. None of the baseball details from the moment Danny is drafted are even slightly realistic. It's hard to say any of the earlier stuff is realistic either, as we've never had an unhittable switch-pitcher in high school or Little League, but I'm willing to grant some leeway as that is the crux of the whole story. Still, in the end the lack of credibility outweighs the originality of the plot and the whole thing doesn't add up to much. Don't just take my word for it. Tim Morris, who reviews a ton of books of all kinds, blasted away with both barrels. Here's his summary:

Fortunately I didn't spend money on The Man with Two Arms, and if I return it before next Friday I'll save overdue charges on my library card. I hate to be too harsh on an author's first novel, one that clearly wants to love baseball. (In fact, I'm reacting more to the grossly misleading blurbs on the back of the dust jacket than to the author's earnest and largely well-written attempt to pull off this concept.) But you can see why I regret losing one of the dwindling weekends of summer to such a book.

Okay, so don't cause a stampede trying to get your hands on that one at your local library.

Here's one you won't likely find in a library, or any book store for that matter. The Heater by John Conlee was released this spring by Pale Horse Books, a press so small that most of the offerings seem to have been written by John or Roger Conlee. I'll go way out on a limb and guess they're related somehow. According to the author bio sent to me with the book, Dr. John W. Conlee is a professor of English at the College of William and Mary. He has a specialty in Medieval English, and wrote four young adult novels on King Arthur. He has taught a college course on baseball, called "The American Game in Fact, Fiction, and Film." Now that's a class I wouldn't have minded sitting through back in my school days.

In The Heater, Conlee weds his love for baseball and Celtic legends. If it sounds a little out there, it kind of is, but not as far as I pictured when I read the summary on the back of the book. The book opens with Ty Duffy, second baseman for the "cellar-dwelling Bay City Grays" drinking a Harp Lager in his favorite bar after yet another loss. Jimmy Devlin, an obnoxious but lovable rookie pitcher, introduces himself as a fellow Gray-and Irishman. The pair become friends and help lead the Grays to contention the following season, but it's Jimmy's lust for a mysterious Irish beauty that bonds them as "Duff" attempts to keep his young teammate safe from the Irish mafia.

Another original concept. Another book that doesn't quite live up to the quotes on the back. "Whether in Yankee Stadium or on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, this trans-Atlantic thriller keeps you perched on the edge of your pew," claims Kieran O'Rouke, one of the blurbers on the back of The Heater. Unfortunately, it wasn't suspenseful enough to be a thriller. In fact, the final scene fizzled out before any real suspense could build.

As this was Conlee's first adult novel and it wasn't released by a major publisher, I'm not going to hammer on it too hard. I will offer a few points of constructive criticism instead.

1. Pick a title that has something more to do with the book than a generic baseball term like "The Heater." Ty Duffy's not even a pitcher, in which case it might have sort of fit if he threw a great fastball or something.

2. Ty is a little clich├ęd. He's a cynical guy who doesn't know if he's capable of loving anyone and doesn't seem to mind being that way. He's a baseball player whose father named him Tyrus Raymond Cobb Duffy. He's more cerebral than the average ball player, down to his love for opera music, which becomes mildly annoying not all that far into the book. "A baseball player who goes to Lincoln Center to see Verdi's Nabucco?" Yeah, hard to believe. Ty wasn't real enough to me to make me really care what happened to him.

3. Enough with the Harp Lager. It's fine for characters to simply drink beer, even if they're Irish. You can show him drinking a Harp in the movie and collect the product placement dollars then.

4. The completely tangential conversations between Ty and Jimmy where they challenge each other to match players with their nicknames seems like an excuse to ramble off a bunch of players' nicknames. It doesn't move the story anywhere.

5. At times, especially after Ty goes to Ireland, the book reads like a travelogue, almost as if you have all this great knowledge about Ireland and nowhere else to use it.

6. If you're going to use fictional baseball player names, don't use ones that purposely sound like real players, i.e. Jim Breyritz and Pedro Ordonez. It's so obvious who the character is supposed to be that you might as well just use their real names.

That's enough. It wasn't a terrible book. I've certainly read worse, and this one wasn't even painful to finish. I never made it past the third chapter of Slider, by Patrick Robinson. That was truly awful, probably the worst baseball novel ever penned. The Heater is much better than that.

In addition to the books mentioned above, we have a re-release this year of a novel that originally came out in 1987. She's on First, by Barbara Gregorich, follows the career of Linda Sunshine, the first woman to play in the major leagues. She faces quite a lot of hostility from certain teammates, as well as opponents and fans around the league. Linda overcomes it all, only to walk away from the game when she realizes someone pulled strings to get her where she was. It's a solid read that might especially appeal to girls who aren't satisfied settling for slow-pitch softball.

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