review by Hal Jacobs
Baseball has been very good to this country. Especially to the story tellers among us. Games with explosive moments have a special magic that lingers for years. But even quiet, uneventful games can be exciting, especially when you find yourself next to someone who really knows the game.
The narrator of Michael Chabon's Summerland is such a story teller. His knowledge of baseball history goes waaayyyy back - back to when ole Woodenhead created the universe and treacherous Coyote (aka Changeling, Prince of Lies, Shaitan) lay down the foul lines for the first baseball game.
He knows about the world of the ferishers (fairies), how they play in a ballpark carved from giant's ivory. Giants are big baseball lovers, too. They play "in a great yard built from the bones of leviathans and other elder beasts, that could accommodate ten thousand stomping, whooping beastmen and wood-haints and fair folk."
And he knows about reubens (humans), such as Ethan Feld, 11, the "least gifted player" in the game's long, glorious past on Clam Island, Wash. Ethan plays on a team at the Summerland, a part of the island where it never rains (thanks to those little baseball-fanatics, the ferishers). But thanks to Ethan's poor performance, his Fluff 'n' Fold Roosters team never wins, although that doesn't stop his recently widowed father, a dirigible designer, from being the team's loudest, most embarrassing supporter.
That's why Ethan is so amazed when a former Negro League baseball star and "hero scout" named Ringfinger Brown recruits him to be a hero-champion of the universe. His opponent? None other than the Evil One, Coyote, who is bored with existence and wants to poison the Tree of Worlds (with the help of Ethan's abducted father). Once the Tree is dead, so is the universe.
Ethan and his exotic band of fellow adventurers, including teammates Jennifer T. Rideout and Thor Wignutt, don't have much time as they barnstorm through interconnected worlds looking for Coyote. When they finally gather for the big showdown, Ethan faces Coyote on the mound, with the fate of the universe coming down to one last pitch.
On the playing field of adult fiction, Chabon carries a big bat. He's still fresh from a Pulitzer-Prize winning season with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Before that he smashed his way into the big leagues with Wonder Boys. With his new young-adult fantasy novel, Chabon doesn't go for an easy homerun. Instead, he's crafted something far more ambitious. Summerland is a literary knuckleball that will amaze some, confound others and no doubt be swatted into a big Hollywood animated film ("Fantasia meets Pecos Bill?").
Fans of Chabon adult fiction will devour this fantasy as if it were a $20 banana split. Other readers, especially younger ones who find baseball rather forgettable, might find the novel's slow, deliberate pace resembles a long pitchers' duel. The narrator doesn't intrude much on the story, but early on he makes his no-nonsense attitude loud and clear to the reader.
Summerland may not have the razzle-dazzle edginess that marks Chabon's adult fiction. But that's okay. He's written a vivid mythology of Americana that mixes summer camp lore and primitive creature myths with modern-day environmentalism (real estate developers work for Coyote).
Most importantly, he's written a paean to baseball, a game that has provided more heroes and metaphors to our culture than any other, but is now threatened by electronic games and games that reward hyperactivity and hyperglanduralism. "Summerland" simply stretches the metaphor of baseball until the game becomes woven into the fabric of the universe. The novel also leaves behind a disturbing ambiguity: can an Evil One who loves baseball really be all that bad?
an edited version appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002
| top |