Tuesday, August 10, 2010

King's "Blockade Billy" comes up short

If you could judge a book by its cover, "Blockade Billy" would be one of the best releases of 2010. Its Norman Rockwell-esque scene of Billy tagging out yet another runner at home plate is suitable for framing. And there on the back, above the picture of Stephen King in a baseball uniform, we are teased with Billy's sordid secret, which is "darker than any pill or injection that might cause a scandal in sports today."

An enticing package, for sure, even if the book appears a little on the small side. At 132 pages-oh, wait, there are two stories in here (the even shorter "Morality" being the other)-"Blockade Billy" better pack quite a punch. But how much mayhem can even King wreak in 80 pages?

Not enough, it turns out.

Billy, a.k.a. William Blakely, played for the since-forgotten New Jersey Titans back in the late 1950s. With the team in desperate need of a catcher, the slender Blakely was all the help that was available on the farm. But his stature belies his tenacity, and he quickly proves to be an immovable object when he wins every collision at home plate. The bodies of opposing runners pile up, some almost literally, as the home crowd waves ROAD CLOSED signs and cheers its new hero.

Billy can swing a bat, too. The rookie from nowhere hits for average and power, leading the Titans' paltry attack. But his manager realizes something's amiss. For all the heroics, the team isn't winning like it should. Even though star pitcher Danny Dusen swears his new backstop brings him luck, the skipper doesn't agree. "I don't buy that lucky charm stuff," he says. "I think Blakely sucks luck."

Sucking luck turns out to be the least of the young catcher's sins. His past, of course, catches up to him, and we learn he's not the real William Blakely.

King employs George Grantham, one of the Titans' coaches now living in an old folks' home, to tell Billy's story. It's not an original method, even in baseball stories, but it works. Maybe in his prime, Grantham was capable of talking longer, say maybe long enough to get through an entire novel instead of an 80-page novella. If so, it's a shame King didn't drop in on him sooner.

My chief complaint with "Blockade Billy" is that it's too short to really build up to what could have been a more suspenseful finale. Without proper foreshadowing, readers can't guess along with any kind of mystery. They're just led in the end to a conclusion no one could have seen coming, because there were no clues dropped along the way.

We learn only enough about Billy to suspect he's not a pure and innocent soul, but when Grantham reveals the horrible truth, we don't feel much for the catcher or his victims. We've suddenly got a solution to a crime we didn't even realize had been committed.

Then we start wondering if the true crime was marketing a short story that can easily be read in under an hour for $14.99. Even though you'll be hard pressed to find it selling at full price, you'll likely feel taken. Do yourself a favor and hit the library for this one. If the line at the desk is long, you might even get through it before you reach the checkout counter.

Later this week I'll run down some of the year's other fiction offerings, including one that ranks much higher on my list than "Blockade Billy."

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