Danny Boles is an old guy with a serious limp, and a voice that comes out of a little machine he holds to his throat to compensate for the tracheotomy that removed his cancerous vocal chords a few years back. Living for weeks at a time in a broken-down, old motor home, he’s a scout for the Atlanta Braves in the pre-Internet, pre-Sabermetrics days of the late 1980s. Danny Boles makes a (more-or-less) living looking for talent on sandlots and high school diamonds across the South. Danny Boles is good at his job. A lot of his recommendations have been signed, and a lot of those have gone onto to play, at least a little while, in the bigs.
But long before that, before now, it was 1943, and Danny Boles was a stuttering, 17-year-old kid playing high school ball in Tenkiller, Okla., freshly signed to play for the Highbridge (Ga.) Hellbenders of the Chattahoochee Valley League, way, way down at the bottom of the Philadelphia Phillies organization. He’d like to tell you about that year.
It’s been said, by somebody I can’t remember right off, that baseball invites the best literature because it’s the only sport that has built-in time for contemplation. It may have been Bart Giamatti, or maybe W.P. Kinsella. They’ve both written beautifully about baseball. It may have been somebody else. It wasn’t Gregory Hillis, though he recently made a similar point in an essay I like quite a lot for the Commonweal. But whoever it was, they were likely on to something. At least in terms of baseball inviting, or inspiring, the best literature.
I don’t read much fiction these days, but I was delighted to revisit Michael Bishop’s magnificent 1994 novel, Brittle Innings. Bishop is my favorite living fiction writer. He’s up there in years now, and writes — or at least publishes — very little these days, but from the early 1970s through the 1990s, he wrote an almost astonishingly brilliant run of novels and short stories.
His most famous works (he’s never been a big seller, even in his heyday) has been shoved under the heading of Science Fiction or Fantasy, but while I mean no disrespect to either of those genres, his work has consistently transcended labels and categories. Longtime readers in those areas might well recognize or remember No Enemy but Time, Transfigurations, Ancient of Days, or Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas. Unlike most SF, Bishop’s chosen science is anthropology. Rather than rockets and hardware, he’s always been more concerned with societies: How they work and how they engage with one another, often tragically. Digging deeper, he’s always been concerned with what it means to be human.
Brittle Innings is also about how societies engage with one another, and the humanity of those within them. Stuttering Danny Boles, riding the train from Oklahoma to Georgia in 1943 to begin his professional baseball career, comes up against a part of another sub-society: soldiers on leave. Boles suffers an unspeakable tragedy that renders him mute, making him both a further outcast, and an ideal observer of what transpires over the course of the season for the Highbridge Hellbenders, their motley roster of has-beens and never-will-bes, their morally conflicted owner-manager, and particularly his reluctant roommate, “Jumbo” Hank Clerval.
Clerval, the team’s massive first baseman, is a misshapen hulk of a man, with Herculean power and surprisingly agile glove-work. He’s also an enigma: a gentle-speaking man with a 19th Century vernacular, a fearsome-looking pacifist and vegetarian, an open critic of the current, and any, warfare, and a man with seemingly no past, but many secrets.
Steeping in the heat, dust, and humidity of Southern Georgia in the summertime, Brittle Innings is also a fantasy novel, of the non-twee-fairies-in-the-mist variety. It’s Magical Realism, Southern Gothic-style and Bishop, as is his want, pulls it off flawlessly. Flannery O’Connor meets Gabriel García Marquez meets Ring Lardner gives you a very general idea, though previous readings of Bishop’s work will give you a better one. In any case, many, and perhaps most, readers will have no idea they’re reading a work of fantasy until halfway through, when that aspect is laid out clearly and directly. But mostly, Bishop is here exploring the question of what it means to be human in the face of human cruelty. No fantasy is involved on that count.
His setting, the South in the 1940s, against the backdrop of both WWII and a pennant race, is not capricious. They all play their part in shaping both Danny, our narrator and protagonist, and the others whose lives shape his as a young man learning how to become an adult. Fair warning: The narration and dialog reflect their place and time.
Bishop knows his characters, and well beyond type and tropes, these are living, breathing people, with all of their dreams, hopes, frustrations and stupidities. He has the ability to encapsulate a real person in a snatch of dialog, an offhand gesture, a look from the corner of eye, a world in a smile, tragedy in the leap for a long fly. Anguish and remorse in a downcast eye.
Bishop knows his baseball and its history, too. He knows how the game is played, its rhythms and quirks. He can write an inning, a game, a series. His ballplayers are not sophisticated men (Clerval, perhaps, excepted), but they come across as authentic, three dimensional characters, as do the non-ballplayers. Bishop is a gifted writer, stylish without being showy. He’s able to convey a range of emotions in a single line of dialog, capture a mosaic in a single image. He’s really very, very good.
Brittle Innings is a great baseball novel, but like most great baseball novels, it’s also simply a great novel. We have a long, cold winter ahead of us. Brittle Innings can help keep you warm and alive and human while you wait for baseball to come again in the spring.