There’s an idea out there about which books fit the bill as “The Great American Novel.” Opinions on such things vary, of course, but to paraphrase Marlon Brando, this book could’ve been a contender.
On the surface, this is a book about baseball, friendship, growing up in Brooklyn in the years leading up to and during World War II, and what it means to become a man. It’s a book about all those things, becoming important not just by handling these things extremely well, but also by directly engaging with the era and its social dynamics. The result is that it brings this era to life and lends itself to the human experience through its characters.
Had I rated this book as any other novel, let alone one with a historical bent, I’d be sorely tempted to crucify it at the altar of “all these things it did wrong.” The lead character Joey is most assuredly a Gary Stu in the most absurd sense of the idea. But in the course of the reading, he’s got so much personality that you care in spite of it. Imagine the kid from the movie A Christmas Story. Now give him the can’t-lose factor of the kid from Home Alone, the speed reading and memory capability of Teddy Roosevelt, and the charisma and sheer dumb luck of Jim Kirk. Now make him aware of his gifts, and let him make the choice to use his powers for personal gain. The epistolary format of the novel means the character voices come shining through, including Joey and all those who have to deal with this precocious (yet lovable?) little punk scamp. The other characters in this story make Joey anything close to viable. It shouldn’t work, but it does against all odds.
Related, and probably a bigger no-no in my book… as an historical novel, this book has me divided. On the negative, research of pop culture is non-existent, made magnifyingly worse in my view because it directly hammered on the touchstones that make this era what it is for me. Chronology is not a malleable commodity in the telling of historical fiction. If the point of a pop culture reference is to give the reader a sense of time and place, and the reader knows without looking that the author is wrong, the storytelling stops long enough for negative opinion to run amuck. When the author does this time and time again across just a span of a few pages, it’s the kind of thing that makes the author a candidate for a prime bitch-slapping. As the author is clearly a baseball fan, and as you can put the idiosyncrasies of baseball fans in with film buffs and comic book fans, the author should just know better than to assume the audience either doesn’t know or is willing to just go with it. In any storytelling world, be it our “real” world or a fictional one, world building is key to the verisimilitude. World building makes any story worth reading because it invites us to leave our own world and stay awhile in this other one. It’s a contract of trust between author and reader. Details make all the difference. Break the illusion, break the world. It’s Bad Writing 101, it’s inexcusable, and it’s by far one of the worst examples of it I can point out. It’s practically a master class on what not to do, and I put Steve Kluger on the same pedestal as Philippa Gregory or Diana Gabaldon for his efforts on this front. Libraries existed before Google, and I have many books of research on own my bookshelf that would have aided in the production of this novel. I prepared myself to finish this by looking at this book through the lens of Impressionism. The fact is, I was able to do so because he started getting more facts right and stopped playing directly in my backyard, so to speak.
No, I don’t think I’m judging this aspect too harshly. You either know the world you’re writing, or you don’t. There’s no in between, and no amount of faking it will carry you to victory.
As abysmal as the world building is, the character building and storytelling are magnificent. This is why I prepared myself to finish it instead of simply tossing it to the sharks. The book told me up front that it had a story that needed to be told. It’s one star for world building, with character and storytelling pushing this over the average mark to three stars for a good solid read. So why four stars? Because this book didn’t flinch when handling anything from the pitfalls of growing up without a father to the extreme political issues of the age, which includes Japanese American interment camps. This sort of thing is why it could have been a contender for “Great American Novel.” But great art is made by knowing which rules to break and how. Coloring outside of the lines is never acceptable. Were this book given the polish it deserved, it would easily be a five-star read. All it would take is to move one scene and do some minor line edits to the remainder of the issues. That’s it. That’s the difference between truly great and “good enough,” and good enough rarely ever is. So because the potential is so easy to achieve, I give it four in the understanding that my eye will not stop twitching long enough to praise this book properly.