09 September 2007

Home Runs Are Fascist

Saying Michael Chabon’s Summerland has a baseball background is like saying the Harry Potter books take place in and around a school. Baseball suffuses the novel, providing its setting, its metaphors, and its values.

On page 248, Chabon strongly suggests that the designated hitter is an invention of Satan. (I figure any rule that puts David Ortiz in the lineup is just fine.) Page 222 hints that Roberto Clemente is a hero on par with those "poisoned by the blood of centaurs."

Toward the end of its long playing season, Summerland offers this lesson for the young protagonists, and apparently for us all:

They noticed that there was more to baseball than hitting the ball as hard as you could, than waving your glove in the general direction of the ball and hoping for the best. They took pitches, turned double plays, and hit the cutoff man, and instead of trying to cream it every time they got up, they just did their best to advance the runner.
In particular, the novel is the story of young Ethan learning to appreciate, love, and play the game in the important position of catcher.

However, Chabon doesn't show us Ethan Feld learning to read batters' proclivities and calling pitches, watching for a runner on first steal to second, calling for an outfield shift. His big play in the field is holding onto the ball in a collision at home plate, which requires dedication and brute force rather than thought and teamwork.

From the start, Ethan struggles at the plate, having the unproductive tendency to close his eyes while swinging. Later he carves a bat from the piece of the original tree (don't ask), but a bulge in the grip blisters his hands. And there's no hint he can hit for power.

But Ethan doesn't get around those problems by learning to bunt like Scooter Rizzuto or poking drives into the opposite field where they ain't. Instead, at the climactic moment of the book he hits a home run.

And it's not just any home run. I'd thought the end of The Natural--the movie directed by Barry Levinson, not the novel by Bernard Malamud--presented the apotheosis of the four-bagger, with stadium lights exploding in a ludicrous shower of slow-motion sparks. Summerland goes beyond even that.

Ethan's home run literally tears a hole in the sky. And somehow that leads to the antagonist's defeat. Don't ask me how--I've read that passage three times now, and I still can't figure out exactly what's supposed to happen. I suppose I should call this a ****SPOILER****, but I can't give away what I don't know. All I can say is that the ball not only flies into left field, but the whole scene seems to come out of left field. The game ends. And how does that approach advance the runner?

1 comment:

Jen Robinson said...

Just wanted to say two thumbs up to the DH rule and David Ortiz.

From a fellow kid lit and Red Sox fan.