Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Painting the Corners (of My Topical Breadth): A Baseball Book Review

With a beer in-hand, rather than devoured prior to a review, I offer now a different review but still on blog-topic - since this is, of course, Malty Tasker.  In response to a request for web reviewers, I received a review copy of Bob Weintraub's Painting the Corners: A Collection of Off-Center Baseball Stories (published by Iguana Books, and available in hard copy for $23.99, shipping included, or $9.99 for an ebook available in diverse formats).

As a fan of both baseball and the short story format, I was excited to devour this short book of eleven stories (even if it meant my personal enjoyment of Dirk Hayhurst's second masterpiece would have to wait!)  Yet, interested as I was, I was simultaneously skeptical since a part of my baseball love stems from its history, its legacy, its stats, its facts, its lore.  All of the baseball reading I do, and have done, is non-fiction and I tend not to get overly into baseball films that are too divorced from historical accuracy (Bull Durham as the remarkable exception in my opinion).

Yet, my reservations were tempered early as the stories drew me in and entertained, not universally, but reliably and enjoyably.

One of the things I like about short stories (and perhaps also their detriment) is that they are just that: short.  A story that doesn't catch you immediately can be completed without an early departure from an entire novel while there are other options forthcoming, and Weintraub's first offering in this series fits this mould for me, though he succeeds far more often than not.  That is, most stories affected me and drew me in deeply; some made me chuckle more than others, some made me feel more, some entertained more, but those that did catch me caught me well and they far outnumbered those that didn't catch me at all (as I would say I truly loved six of the eleven and highly enjoyed three of the remaining five).

Perhaps Weintraub's writing helped me overcome my resistance to fiction with subject matter so inexorably tied to historical continuity insofar as he weaves this history so well throughout the text (in ways not unlike Bull Durham).  Only rarely are the heroes of baseball legend invoked, but the specificities of historical time, place, context, mood, tone, era, style are woven so neatly throughout the stories that one truly gets a sense of the author's knowledge of the game.  Indeed, without quite being 'historical fiction,' these stories cannot help but be enmeshed in the history that informs Weintraub's love of the game as it informs mine.

This history goes beyond the game, bringing Canadian and American cultures and pasts surrounding wealth, racism, war, and more into the context in ways that help bring characters to life; characters that are themselves remarkably diverse.  Weintraub thus demonstrates the diversity of character and characters in the game by exploring the perspectives of managers, players, families, agents, fans, writers, owners, scouts, prisoners, kids and adults alike, and he navigates their differences as deftly as he does the differing eras and professional levels.  This makes it more than a baseball book, but it is truly the baseball historian that will love and appreciate the ways this book can illuminate this diversity through fiction, and to me that is remarkable!

Weintraub is at his best when he manages to bring the personal aspect in in ways such that the baseball aspect is merely that: an aspect.  Specifically, the following stories moved me most by going beyond baseball: "The Autograph" (about a multitude of coincidences that tie lives and baseball together), "Knuckleball" (about a knuckleballer and the social norms of our society), "The Way They Play is Criminal" (about a prison game scouted on Alcatraz), "Blowing Bubbles" (about a family, hard-dealt-hands, life, and baseball), "The Kansas City Kid" (about a player's relationship to management, and management's relationship to the club), and "A Flare for Dan Nugent" (about an old-timer struggling to accept his costly error in the seventh game of the World Series that cost his club the victory).  It is baseball that brought me in, but it is the human element and storytelling that kept me throughout these moments.

One other way that several of these stories succeed where others falter (to varying degrees) in my opinion is by not simply repeating a pattern of remarkable, epic, unique, one-in-a-trillion endings that seem at times a bit too cliché.  Don't get me wrong, baseball thrives on the no-clock, anything-can-happen endings and they should be there.  Likewise, fiction often stands out in accounting for the remarkable, so these epic endings must be present; they simply felt a bit over-used at times and the success of those stories that end more negatively, or in limbo, or with the personal at the forefront demonstrates that the baseball book - unlike the game itself - relies less on the heroic conclusion than it does on the character and context.

There were also those times when I found myself desiring more information at the end and I appreciated Weintraub's refusal to complete the stereotypical, modernist picture.  One specific instance where I wished to have more concerned the detailed lives of the generations in "Blowing Bubbles" and, in this case specifically, I was so invested in the characters that I feel this could become a longer story in itself and that its only real shortcoming was in being too good and substantive for the format.

There is, moreover, a slight dark humour and theme of fate/coincidence that runs through many of the stories, and at this too Weintraub excels.

My few slight and only sporadic misgivings aside, this book was a true pleasure to read and it helped affirm my faith in the capacities of baseball fiction to append, rather than offend, the historicity of baseball lore.  Thus, I eagerly await the planned second volume and encourage you too to check out the first (and then the second as well if so inclined!)


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