Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Butterfly Winter flutters off course

As anyone who has been following this site the past couple of months knows, I have been counting down to the release of W.P. Kinsella's Butterfly Winter, his first novel in 15 years. I primed myself by reading Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, both excellent novels that rank among the greats of the genre, particularly Shoeless Joe. They set the bar awfully high for Butterfly Winter, and to me it didn't come anywhere close to clearing it.

While magic plays a prominent role in both Joe and Confederacy, Kinsella kicks the hoodoo up a notch in Butterfly Winter, handing the job of primary storyteller over to a baseball-evangelist-turned-wizard from the enchanted Caribbean nation of Courteguay, a fictional country wedged between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Kinsella employs a gringo journalist to draw from the wizard both the story of Courteguay and that of the Pimental brothers. Julio and Esteban, fraternal twins who look nothing like each other, play for 20 years in the U.S. major leagues, beginning when they are just 10, thanks to doctored paperwork that added six years to their age. Julio, who began pitching to Esteban when the two were still in their mother's womb, is nearly unhittable, provided he is pitching to his brother, a woeful hitter who would never make a roster if not for the fact that the two come as a package deal.

The boys return each offseason to Courteguay, ignoring the constant political turmoil and regular overthrows of the government. One winter Julio meets and falls in love with Quita, the daughter of former Courteguayan baseball great Milan Garza. They consummate their union high in the hills under skies so thick with monarch butterflies the sun is blotted out by their fluttering wings. Julio and Quita pass the winter under a blanket of butterflies, emerging in the spring just in time for him to return to the States.

Quita's subsequent encounter with the wicked Dr. Noir, a sadistic former chiropractor who has taken over as dictator of Courteguay, spawns the only dramatic tension in a book that deals more in fantastic yarns and wild stories, many of which wander off the thin plot for no apparent reason other than to add more brushstrokes to the colorful Courteguayan canvas Kinsella has painted. Among the 78 mini chapters are digressions on a player who pees ice water, an outfielder who rusts in the rain, and a crop of tropical plants that procreate with an endangered tribe of jungle women.

The writing is enriched by vintage Kinsella descriptions. The city of San Cristobel is baked by "a carnivorous sun." En route to Courteguay, the young wizard encounters "fundamentalists so narrow they could look through a keyhole with both eyes." The boys' father would wake at night, his head overflowing with visions, "his mind like a box of photographs scattered callously on a floor." A deposed general "was dressed in camouflage fatigues, his beard ragged as Spanish moss hanging from a tree branch."

Despite the frequent lyrical bursts, Butterfly Winter never really comes together. The gringo journalist thing has been done before, and better, in Mark Winegardner's Veracruz Blues, and probably dozens of other books. Some of the chapters come from other characters and could not plausibly have been funneled through the journalist or the wizard, which would normally be okay if there hadn't been the pretense of the wizard-journalist story pipeline. At times one wonders whose story this is. Is it meant to be the wizard's? The gringo journalist's? Julio's? Esteban's? Courteguay's? Is it a baseball story or the tale of a mystical, tumultuous jungle nation?

There's also an underlying obsession with sex and procreation that doesn't really fit the story. Particularly over the top was the aforementioned scene with the anthuriums sexually satisfying the lonely women as they slept. I pictured it as something from a Pink Floyd video. I could also easily have done without Dr. Noir's wound factory, where he practiced his diabolical forms of torture. Even Stephen King's Blockade Billy didn't get that gruesome.

Serious injuries suffered in a 1997 car accident nearly ended Kinsella's writing career. For a long time he thought he would never write fiction again, because he had lost the ability to concentrate. It's good to have him back, even if his best days may be behind him.

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