Bookshelf “rewind” review: Brittle Innings

January 2, 2013

With so many books I haven’t gotten to, I find it almost wasteful to reread books I’ve enjoyed (who would revisit one they didn’t enjoy? That’s like saying “this is a picture of me when I was younger.” As the late comedian Mitch Hedberg once said, “Every picture of you is when you were younger.” But I digress….)

When it comes to baseball fiction, you always here about the big three or four: The Natural, by Malamud; The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Coover; The Celebrant: A Novel, by Greenberg; and perhaps Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa: Stories or some other story of Kinsella. All great, to be sure. Lately Harbach’s The Art of Fielding: A Novel has been thrown into that mix, which, as anyone who’s read my previous thoughts about that one knows I find way lacking.

I submit that Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings, a 1994 fantasy about a Southern-based minor league team during world War II is every bit as worthy of inclusion in any serious discussion about the best of baseball fiction. It is included in the forthcoming 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die

Brittle Innings is told from the point of view of Danny Boles, a teenage “phenom” who has lost his voice after a violent altercation while traveling from his small hometown in Tenkiller, OK to play for the Higbridge Hellbenders, an aptly named assemblage of misfits that includes Henry “Jumbo” Clerval, a baseball version of the Frankenstein monster. But rather than a dull, violent creature, Clerval is the most sensitive and intelligent person in the book. He takes Danny under his wing (not unlike the Ishmael-Queequag relationship in Moby Dick) and teaches him “life lessons,” albeit without the cliches.

Boles obviously has a lot of growing up to do when it comes to playing with men and his developing relationship with a young lady in town. The there’s the racial component; since the scene is set in the Deep South, there is the obligatory issue of segregation/Jim Crow, where lessons are not learned by the majority of the team when it comes to respect and tolerance. Heck, they barely tolerate each other, competing for a spot in the starting lineup as they look ahead for a possible Major League career. Bishop’s use of language and dialect is scintillating, especially when it comes from Clerval.

Brittle Innings would make for an interesting feature film and, in fact, a screenplay was created many years ago. Sadly nothing ever came of it.

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