If you think about it, first-rate and reputable baseball novels can actually be hard to come by. Back in 2011, Chad Harbach scribed a heartbreaking tale that engrossed readers who fit on the Venn diagram overlapping high literary aesthetics and baseball fanaticism. Harbach’s crowning achievement was The Art of Fielding. Anybody who’s ever shed tears watching Field of Dreams and is literate should have read W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe by now. Then you have Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, which is a good, but not great book, due to its maudlin tone that colors Roy Hobbs slightly adolescent and whiny (not an element of character carried over to the movie adaptation). I barely remember the story of The Brothers K, as I read it just after high school, but I do recall it being a slog to get through.
Then, just a couple months ago, my boss recommended I read Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop. Clearly this book has flown under the radar since being published in 1994, as I hadn’t heard of it until just recently.
Michael Bishop is an award-winning author known primarily for Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and volumes of poetry. His poetic leanings shine through in his fluid and hilarious dialogue in Brittle Innings. Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Georgia. His Midwestern roots and education in the South are pertinent and informative of his knowledge of the culture, accents, and dialects of those regions. Those same regions are the setting for what appears to be his only novel concerning baseball as the connective tissue between characters. It is ultimately a very human tale of friendship and monstrous revenge.
Brittle Innings, as a piece of fiction, occasionally tricks the reader into believing this to be an actual reckoning of real historical events. Even though there is no Chattahoochee Valley League – there was a real league called the Chattahoochee Valley Baseball League – in baseball history. At least not one comprised of teams like the Highbridge Hellbenders. The Hellbenders are the squad that our protagonist, Danny Boles, plays starting shortstop for. According to this nearly tangible fictitious tale, the Hellbenders are a Class-C affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. In the sweltering Georgia summer of 1943 a young, naïve Boles befriends the Hellbenders’ behemoth of a first baseman, Hank “Jumbo” Clerval. They become an odd couple, with Boles just barely 5’5” and Jumbo a mythically large man – his height never clearly stated – possibly over seven feet tall. Boles, self-described as an ungainly young man with ears far too large for the rest of him, earns the nickname “Dumbo”. His stuttering and temporary muteness are also elucidative of the moniker. Our unlikely duo are known as Jumbo and Dumbo; a hilarious and alliterative pair.
Bishop’s mastery of magical realism is what continuously fools you into re-writing history in your head as you read along. Yet, his ability to let the reader think they know what is coming in the story might be his sharpest skill as a writer. He allows you to know that a reveal is coming, but only to twist it so that his touches of foreshadowing look nearly obvious in retrospect. You’d be a pretty clever reader to see the monster in the room before Bishop wants you to fully. And when tragedy is around the corner, you’ll suddenly remember that he told you it was coming all along, but in such fleeting nonchalance that you nearly came out of your shoes striking out. Then you have his ability to write believably, ultimately convincingly, about baseball. Take the following passage as an example of his literary acumen to describe in-game action:
“He looked to have just two pitches: a fastball and a fadeaway. Today you’d call a fadeaway a screwball or a scroogie, and it’s not usually a pitch high schoolers master. Somehow, Ankers had. He’d start if off like a speedball, but finger-lip it. Just as it got to a righthanded hitter it jerked in and dropped away. With that pitch, he made Hoey and Snow look like amateur-night contestants. They both rolled out to the infield. Musselwhite, though, muscled one to the right-field wall for a triple because Ankers slipped up and threw him a fastball low and inside. Muscles batted left, and that was the perfect pitch for him to cream. Ankers learned from his mistake. From then on, he threw nothing but fadeaways and teaser fastballs.”
There is a lot to digest here, including the fact that this passage is actually from split-squad action to determine positional battles and not official game play. I love that Boles narrates with a clear knowledge of how the names of pitches vacillate through different eras. It is clear that Bishop knows baseball, because his narrator knows how to perfectly describe the movement of that “fadeaway” pitch. And finally, the free and easy, playful dialect of Boles brightens the language so as to avoid giving readers just another boring description of baseball. It can be thoroughly difficult to describe a baseball game outside of the proscribed style and not arrive at disastrous results.
Let baseball, set in a muggy, rustic summer amidst the Second World War, draw you into this story. Baseball will be the gravity that brings you to this book, as baseball fans. However, Bishop’s deft illumination of the very real struggle of every human life is what will be your ultimate reward. That struggle is to stay fair within the foul lines of the beast we all have the potential to be to retain our humanity.
So, when you want a break from all those heady sabermetric tomes you have stacked on your desk staring you down, crack open Brittle Innings. The story of Danny Boles – a kid who “could outrun the word God”, but fumbles through abuse, shame, excellence coupled with joy, and even romantic trysts – will hit you all over your emotional strike zone. Danny Boles, a man I’m still convinced actually existed, despite the lack of proof to be discovered.