The novel-length science fiction of Michael Bishop tends to follow a pattern: a solitary, often rebellious, individual explores an alien culture and undergoes physical, emotional and intellectual transformations as a result. The process of making scientific breakthroughs – anthropology or xenology being the fields in question – come with the price of breaking away from the protagonist’s original social structure. At least, this has been the case in his novels through No Enemy but Time.
Brittle Innings (1994) is another variation of the theme, seemingly targeting a more mainstream audience. The individual-who-learns is a young baseball player named Danny Boles, whose youth in a destitute corner of Oklahoma ends when he leaves to join a minor league baseball team. In fact, we are told that BI is the memoir of Danny Boles, now a retiring talent scout as of 1991, as told to a journalist.
The first half of BI is the story of Boles as he struggles with his traumatic past and adapts to life as a traveling ballplayer in rural Georgia. His roommate is the mysterious giant “Jumbo” Hank Cerval, whose appearance, athletic ability and exceptional literacy are clues to an intriguing past. Boles and Jumbo aid each other as they undergo a contentious process of assimilation into their shared world of baseball and rural Southern life.
Besides being a relatively long and complex book, BI is also marked by a significant “reveal” about midway through. Long-time readers of SF will be able to guess who Jumbo might really be well ahead of time, but of course with Bishop the real surprises are often in the details. Nonetheless, given my pattern of avoiding spoilers in reviews, I decided to split this article into two parts.
Boles is recruited out of a very small town in Oklahoma by a wealthy businessman and owner of the Highbridge Hellbenders, a “Class C” minor league baseball team. Harry Boles is a standout shortstop at his high school (and also not eligible for the draft until after the baseball season), but off the field he is timidly naïve and at a constant loss when expressing himself:
. . . Like Miles Standish, I tried to speak for myself.
“I wuh . . . I wuh . . .”
“Take your time, Daniel,” Miss Tulipa said.
“I want to pl-play in the m-m-majors,” I blurted.
Miss Tulipa’s smile sparkled like the cut-glass chandelier over the table. “Why, of course you do.”
After graduating, Boles travels by train to his new team, which is based in Georgia. We are shown the standings of the league the Hellbenders play in, which are all teams from towns spanning a region shared by northern Georgia and Alabama. Boles’ father Dick, who taught him the game prior to abandoning the family for Alaska, was a Cherokee descended from the people forced out of Georgia along the notorious Trail of Tears. Thus, Boles’ initial journey is the reverse of the path taken by his paternal ancestors.
We get only memories and indirect descriptions of Dick Boles, due to his abandonment, but there are hints that Danny Boles was physically abused by his father. His stutter seems to be driven by anxiety, but an incident on the train renders him completely mute: a sergeant who recognizes Boles as the son of Dick Boles (who was serving in the Army in Alaska), claims an unpaid debt and steals all of his cash. He then takes Boles into the train bathroom and rapes him — an act which takes his voice but also seems to recall other incidents that never get aired in this fictional memoir.
The Red Stick
Boles’ high school baseball team is nicknamed the Red Stix, following the common American tradition of naming sports teams after Native American warriors. Many popular examples survive to this day – Fighting Illini, Atlanta Braves, Utah Utes, etc. The Red Stix were named after the sub-clans of the Creek tribe who resisted assimilation into the European culture, culminating in the Creek War (1813-1814). The American commander in the Creek War was Andrew Jackson, who later signed and enforced the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Creeks’ traditional weapons were red-painted war clubs, and Boles carries a red-painted bat on the train into Georgia, which sticks out of his duffel bag.
The first time he makes contact with a ball as a member of the Hellbenders, Boles shatters his red bat. Thereafter, he thrives as a player while putting his father out of his mind. He remains mute for about a month after his train ride, and manages his painful emotions concerning his father through the season. It still feeds into some of his impulsive choices, including visiting a brothel and escalating his rivalry with Buck Hoey, the team’s starting shortstop before Boles supplanted him. In these situations, Jumbo attempts to fill the void that Dick Boles left.
One aspect of Jumbo’s guidance is his equal treatment of people regardless of race, making him an exception to the norms of 1943 America. He never lectures Boles about prejudice or has some sort of Atticus Finch moment of glory, but he lets his own behavior be an ongoing counterexample against the vile language of other ballplayers and the genteel racism of their employer. Like so many other elements of BI, the discussion of racism and how to educate against it is accomplished, but gradually.
Jumbo came upstairs to find me writing down my stats from the Eufaula series and weighing them against my teammates’. It embarrassed me for him to see me doing this — I still had a sky-high batting average and came down harder on my teammates than on myself. I couldn’t quibble with Jumbo’s stats, though. He’d played great on the road — my notebook said so.
I slammed my notebook shut on my knees.
“Some of my my library books fall due this week. Go with me to return them.” Jumbo packed a laundry bag with books.
The forced march to the library is but one part of an overarching theme of literacy. The house cook is named Kizzy, which may be an allusion to the slave-child character in Roots who gets slapped by her mother for writing her own name. The town library is still off-limits to African-Americans, part of the legacy of fear of literate slaves since Nat Turner’s rebellion. Boles, being mute, is forced to rely on writing to express himself; his notebook responses are reserved for Jumbo and Phoebe (his on-and-off girlfriend), the only two people in Highbridge interested in what he may be thinking. Jumbo does much reading in Boles’ presence as they room together, and eventually the young shortstop gains access to Jumbo’s letters and journals.
Literacy in BI is in the form of books and correspondence, but not newspaper columns. One might expect a far bit of sportswriting in a book about 1940s baseball, but this media is curiously shut out of the story. So too are radio broadcasts (Jumbo dismisses the radio as useless noise); Boles’ recollection of game action is almost entirely his own memories, plus the reactions of the crowd and PA announcer. This fits the sharply anti-nostalgic mood of BI, in contrast to a book like Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, which told a much more forgiving story of old-time baseball through the viewpoint of a well-meaning newspaper hack. Nostalgic sports novels tend to be written by sports journalists, who love to insert their profession deep into the story. Not so with Bishop; it may have felt inappropriate to show a cozy relationship with the media when so many of these minor league teams would later die from competition with televised major league games.
The Pennant Chase
BI tells the story of Boles and Jumbo’s burgeoning friendship as they lead the Hellbenders in their chase of the league title. There is quite a lot of baseball described throughout the book, usually in quick summaries of dusty games. Remarkably, I knew almost every piece of baseball jargon in these passages, despite having read about or watched very little of the sport in recent years – it’s surprising how that subculture can soak into you, and how little those terms have changed. Someone not familiar with three for four, Texas leaguers, coach’s box, pennant and so on will have several terms to look up, as I would if the book were about cricket. One fun reference described an opposing pitcher as “not having Van Der Meer blood,” alluding to a legend of Georgia minor league baseball, Jonny Van Der Meer (in the majors, he is the only pitcher to throw back-to-back no-hitters). What Bishop makes clear beyond off of this terminology, was how much this country was in love with the sport. The stadiums were frequently filled with local spectators, even as the quality of play suffered from so many men in their prime being taken overseas to fight.
In 1943, baseball was still as racially segregated as the rest of society. The most talented member of the Hellbenders club, Darius Satterfield, is black and can only pitch during practices. It is a tragic waste of his abilities, but he is paid more than what he would make in the Negro Leagues (whose teams were, at certain times, the most prosperous African-American-owned business enterprises). Eventually, he gets one last chance to play competitively, but in doing so he must abandon the Hellbenders and his adopted family:
“Better late than no time,” he finally said, peering at us up from under. “But why now? Good question, Mister Henry. I think it’s cause my life’s done crept into its brittlest part, like unto them innings when the whole thing could go either way — depending on jes when the crucial bonecrack happen, and to whom. I awmost waited past the snappin point. Mebbe I did. But if I beat it now, mebbe I’ll get past my brittle innings and play on through to a stretch that’ll heal me, that won’t jes shake me down to splinters and shards.”
Henry, being enlightened, and Boles, being largely mute (he definitely thinks in a way tainted by racism, but out of habit and not genuine hate), are the exceptions to the open racism of rural Georgia, and the culture of the baseball players. Both the African-American characters and the women of the novel are frank with them, and they serve as our eyes and ears for the world that Bishop portrays. This is acceptable for mainstream or historical fiction, and even SF, but I have gotten used to being challenged by the unreliable narrator of Bishop’s other novels. He clearly was pulling for a wider audience here, even if the book hones in on such a deeply American setting.
There could be more to discuss in the patient, descriptive pages of BI, especially concerning the themes of the Home Front, sex and family. However, the most interesting character in the book is actually Jumbo, whom I will (finally) cover in Part 2 of this review.