Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop – part 2

I sat up. A pitchfork of lightning jabbed down on the house’s Alabama side.

This post continues my overview of the 1994 Michael Bishop novel Brittle Innings. Since the novel features a significant reveal about one of its main characters in the middle, I set aside the Gothic elements of BI in the previous post, and stuck to the American topics. This post is more of an addendum, concerning Henry Cerval – the large first baseman with the mysterious origin.


American Gothic, by Grant Wood (1930)

Like Grant Wood’s iconic painting (see that the house curtains are drawn in the middle of the day), BI bears the presence of death and mourning, but under the cloud of ambiguity. Henry “Jumbo” Cerval, who is Jumbo on the baseball diamond (and hence the first part of this review) but Henry Cerval off of it, is revealed almost halfway into the book to be either:

  • the mythical creature created by Dr. Frankenstein, or
  • a natural giant who has, for the sake of burying his real past, taken on the identity of Mary Shelly’s creation

This is discovered by Boles when he snoops into his roommates belongings, stuffed into a kayak that Henry stores under his bed. There are letters written by the ship captain who had been fleeing with Frankenstein across the Arctic, as well as Henry’s journal. In his erudite language, Henry has written long descriptions of his time after the events of Shelly’s Frankenstein. Like the quoted monologue of his creator, Henry seems to ache with the burden of living while others around him have died:

Why did I not die? More miserable than man ever was before, why did I not sink into forgetfulness and rest? Death snatches away many blooming children, the only hopes of their doting parents: how many brides and youthful lovers have been one day in the bloom of health and hope, and the next a prey for worms and the decay of the tomb! Of what materials was I made, that I could thus resist so many shocks, which, like the turning of the wheel, continually renewed the torture?

— from Frankenstein, Mary Wallstonecraft Shelley

Initially without aim or plan, I wandered the coldest and least-known wildernesses of Siberia, form its northernmost bays to the sparse taiga forests of the Kolyna Mountains, and many other locales besides. Why did I not die?

— from Brittle Innings, Michael Bishop

Henry’s adventures, as written in his journal of “A New Life,” began after a hibernation of sorts in the Arctic wastelands. He caught up to the stranded ship of Robert Walton, who was the initial narrator of Shelly’s novel, and recovered the frozen body of his creator. Having previously making a promise to Walton that he would “annihilate” himself in flames, Henry has admittedly “temporized,” instead deciding to continue his journey across the ice with Frankenstein in tow. We are given details about the state of Frankenstein’s dead eyes:

My creator, meanwhile, faced the blackness of the northern sea, his eyes cracked like small glass balls, his lips the silver-blu of oiled metal.

And later:

During a brief period of inattention, I had allowed a magpie to pluck out one of his frozen eyeballs; the other had oozed away over days of blinding — nor do I use the word in jest — sunshine.

Why does Henry carry Frankenstein’s body around, in his travels across the northern countryside? Why so many gory details about the state of Frankenstein’s decomposition? Henry seems to have real problems understanding the nature of death, as he is (if he is what he believes himself to be) an animated collection of body parts.

Towards the end of BI, he maintains a skepticism over Danny Boles’ ability to carry on without formally mourning his father Dick Boles. First, he brings him to cave in Alabama, where the now-mummified remains of Frankenstein are kept. He gives Boles a  bizarre memorial-by-proxy:

“Kneel here, Daniel.”

I obeyed, mostly because the ceiling pressed so low that kneeling under it, even with my injuries, came easy. I propped my crutch against the piano crate.

“Take my father as your own. Revile him for his paternal failings, or grieve in silence for your heretofore unwept loss. Or do both together. Sometimes we must rage in order to reflect, inveigh in order to vindicate.”

As I knelt there, Henry blundered softly out. In a way, taking Henry’s daddy for my own and treating him to a prayer of curses may have helped some. In another way, it didn’t seem to help at all. After a while, my brain’d turned into a shifting globe of axle grease. I leaned my head against the crate and tried to let go of the whole jam-up inside me.

Nothing came.


There is a later scene where Boles visits the Aleutian island where his father died, a place near Henry’s most successful absorption into a human society – a hunting tribe of Oogpekmut. This is again set up my Henry with considerable effort, but seems to end with greater success: Henry has at last followed the advice of the Oogpekmut, given to him before his sojourn into the American South.

Boles and Henry struggle throughout BI on the questions of life and death, and their ultimate purpose in a corrupted world. At times, Henry strikes out at it like a virile disease, but in many other cases he is the paragon of kindness and sophistication. Boles struggles with his own past on a more mundane, but compellingly realistic level. Bishop may be telling, on subtle terms, the tale of two individuals whose lives lack the guidance of religion. Or they may be illustrating how the Gothic romances of the past can inform our more technically advanced but less introspective modern times. If Henry really is acting under delusions that he his Frankenstein’s monster, it is because that is the way he fills in his own origin story. The mythic past is, by definition, a past with missing pieces. We fill these gaps with tales in accordance to our own needs. Like the American Gothic painting, this novel has a way of staring back at you. 8/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
This entry was posted in books, science fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop – part 2

  1. Pingback: Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop – part 1 | gaping blackbird

  2. Pingback: Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon (1944) | gaping blackbird

  3. Pingback: Eyes of Fire, by Michael Bishop | gaping blackbird

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