Monday, May 7, 2012

A hero--and a premise--too good to be true

Bryce Harper has got nothing on Joe Castle. The 19-year-old wunderkind of the Washington Nationals is a bum when stacked up against 1973’s rookie phenom. Then again, so was Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and every other player to ever lace up cleats and step onto a ball field.

Summoned in July to fill in at first base for the Cubs, Castle proves a one-man dynamo, leading Chicago out of the tight pack in the National League East into first place, laying waste to the circuit by hitting .488 in 160 at-bats and bombing 21 home runs, including three in his first three trips to the dish. After opening his major league career with hits in his first 15 at-bats, Castle goes on to hit safely in 19 consecutive games, establishing another big league record.

His surefire, first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career is curtailed after just 38 games by a fateful fastball to the face, courtesy of New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracey, a journeyman drunk with a mean streak as long as his hopscotch resume. Despite his denials, Tracey is suspected of having thrown an intentional beanball. His son Paul isn’t just convinced; he actually foresaw the incident, watching in horror from the stands of Shea Stadium as his father flattened his hero.

John Grisham, longtime legal-thriller author and baseball fan, tells the story of Calico Joe through Paul Tracey, who can add the pitch to a long list of his father’s transgressions, which includes physical and verbal abuse of his wife and kids, neglect, philandering, and all-around assholeness. Thirty years later, when Paul receives news from Warren’s fifth wife that his father is terminal with cancer, only the beaning of Joe Castle begs for resolution. It’s far too late to apologize for the rest.

The impending loss of Warren is of almost no consequence. He’s been dead to the rest of the family for decades. Only Paul has even kept in contact, and that’s been a half-hearted and one-sided effort, given his father has never shown any interest in Paul’s wife or three young girls, or really anyone aside from himself.

Immediately upon learning of Warren’s diagnosis, Paul sets off for Calico Rock, Ark., to track down Castle and set up what he hopes will be a wound-healing apology, if three decades overdue. The local newspaper editor, Clarence Rook, informs him he’s wasting his time. “[I]t would be a huge mistake for Warren Tracey to show up here in Calico Rock,” Rook warns Paul. “That could start some serious trouble.”

Indeed, Paul had sensed danger upon arrival in Calico Rock, enough that he altered his last name so as to avoid any possible backlash from the riled up locals. But his visit is without incident and nothing happens.

That’s the problem with Calico Joe in a nutshell. Nothing happens. What conflict there is in the book takes place in 1973, in a storyline interwoven with Paul’s modern-day mission. Even that is so heavily foreshadowed, building like waves in alternating chapters, that by the time we finally see Paul get hit by his father it only darkens the dots we had already filled in.

Despite the dust jacket promises of “A surprising and moving novel of fathers and sons, forgiveness and redemption,” there are few surprises and little to move the reader. The book is short and lacks any kind of dramatic tension or significant climax. The resolution is so facile as to be nearly implausible (and I won’t go any further than that, because to do so would spoil even the modicum of drama remaining for the reader).

Aside from that, it’s not a bad read and one you can literally plow through in an evening. But that’s a big aside and it left me feeling like there was a lot more that could have been done with this premise.

We’ve now had baseball tales from two of the literary world’s heavyweights in the past three years. Both have failed to live up to expectations. Stephen King’s Blockade Billy, at 80 pages, was so short it makes Calico Joe look like War and Peace by comparison. Both books left me thinking of what might have been. Speaking of which, if Calico Joe only whets your appetite, you might get your fill off Joseph Schuster’s The Might Have Been, the strongest entrant so far in this year’s crop of baseball fiction.

(And not to toot my own horn too loudly, but Tom Hoffarth of the Los Angeles Daily News ranked The Might Have Been and my novel The Greatest Show on Dirt as Stand-Up Triples in his wrapup of his insanely awesome 30 Books in 30 Days last month. Calico Joe rang in at Ground-Rule Double. Those were the only three novels Hoffarth reviewed.)

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