Category Archives: William Hazelgrove

William Hazelgrove hits a home run with his latest novel, The Pitcher

Review by KEN KORCZAK

The last book I read by William Hazelgrove was ROCKET MAN — and one does not have to be a rocket scientist to come to a quick conclusion about his latest novel, THE PITCHER.

This is a straight-up feel good novel designed to milk your emotions and tug at your heart strings. It’s a big fat fastball tossed right down the heart of home plate – and most readers will be taking all the way, and glad they did.

At the end of the novel, you may feel like you hit a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs in the Seventh Game of the World Series. MR. HAZELGROVE is a literary engineer who knows how to manufacture a resounding conclusion you will feel in the gut.

So — The Pitcher is a sports novel perhaps directed primarily at young teenage males, but it’s meaty enough for adults to enjoy as well.

The story revolves around an unlikely triad – a poor Mexican-American boy growing up in south Florida with an illegal immigrant mother who is divorced, unemployed, riddled with deadly health problems but with no insurance to pay for treatment.

The third leg of the stool is a Major League Baseball pitcher who is long past his day glory days. Years ago he reached the summit of the baseball Nirvana – winning the World Series. Now he’s a pathetic drunk running out the time clock of his life as a booze-soaked TV zombie, hazed with tobacco smoke and drooling spittin’ chaw.

Young Ricky Hernandez, age 14, has nothing going for him; he’s poor, edging toward homelessness and academically adrift. He‘s among the brown-skinned ethnic American underclass. He has a violent absentee father who only who only shows up occasionally to slap around his ex-wife and kid, or steal money. On top of that, Ricky has a learning disability and yes – he’s unfocused and lazy.

But wait, Ricky does have a gift – a rocket for an arm. He’s a natural; that is, he would be, if he could only get his fuzzy mind together, get some discipline, develop a work ethic and burnish his golden arm into the shining ticket it could be to the good life. It just so happens that the guy living across the street in self-imposed alcoholic exile is a slowly rotting baseball god — but can Ricky reawaken the Old Deity to get the help he needs?

William Hazelgrove

Needless to say, it all comes together for a wonderful Frank Capra-esque conclusion – and so now that 90% of you have dropped out of the review by this time and are trotting over to the nearest bookstore or Amazon to get a copy – it’s time for me to push “Ordinary Book Reviewer Ken” aside and unchain from the basement my evil twin brother, “Cynical Jaded Pedantic Book Reviewer Ken.”

Look:

William Hazelgrove is one of the most interesting writer’s in America today; some critics say he’s resuscitating great American literature, and I agree. In addition to reading Rocket Man, I have also occasionally browsed his web site, THE VIEW FROM HEMINGWAY’S ATTIC. He’s obviously a thoughtful man of insight whose views I am entirely in sync with.

But for the sake of doing my (nonpaying) job as a book reviewer, I must add these observations about vexing aspects of The Pitcher which nettled me along the way:

Message:

Many frustrated social critics and reformers working in our inner cities say that young people of color, especially blacks, have been oversold on the fantasy that the best way off the Mean Streets of America is success in sports. Only a tiny – very tiny – fraction of any ethnic minority ever make the big leagues, yet like people playing the lottery, millions of young men of color all believe they at least have a shot at sports fame and riches. They don’t … but the result is they end up ignoring other more constructive life pursuits for a near-impossible dream. This book leverages that same fantasy. I highly recommend an essay by Lee Jones, “Hoop Dreams, Hoop Realities,” here: HOOP DREAMS

On the other hand, some might reasonably argue this is a story about a boy who is just trying to make the high school team and prove something to himself.

• A technical Point:

Years ago I had a chance to sit down with one of America’s most successful writers, Ben Bova. I asked him to give me his best writing tips and he said, “Make sure your characters always get out of their own jams.”

He said that when the character is always getting saved by the cavalry thundering over the hill, or by a white knight that swoops in to save the day it robs the story of punch.

Bova said you should make your characters solve their own problems, get themselves out of their own scrapes, even if you, as writer, have to “practically kill them” in the process. Don’t let someone or something else magically swoop in and provide salvation. Bova’s advice might be applied to several scenes of the The Pitcher, and I’ll say no more because I don’t want to issue a spoiler alert.

• Derivative Themes: The Pitcher is basically “The Karate Kid” as baseball. The student wears mitt and hat rather than a dogi and belt; the “master” is burned out drunk rather than a humble Zen handyman. Hazelgrove even seems to give a preemtpive nod to the movie in this passage:

“I breathe heavily and I really want to learn how to pitch. I feel like that boy in the movie Karate Kid where the guy is teaching the boy how to wax his car you know, wax on, wax off.”

• Predicable outcomes:

While Hazelgrove is a master of creating tension and getting the reader to root eagerly for his characters, no one will be surprised by the ending, even if they are delighted.

• Enough saccharine to give you diabetes

Many years ago in the blissful days before the Internet I sold my second article to a national magazine – it was a story about my cat. Cat Fancy magazine bought it, and when it came out, my older brother read it and said in a tone laced with contempt: “Boy you really laid on the sappy schmaltz pretty thick.”

God! Did that ever hurt my feelings! But it was true; my article was emotional and sappy … but … on the other hand, what’s wrong with lathering on the sticky sentiment?

I still don’t know the answer – some might say too much sentimentality is gratuitous – or maybe going for the “cheap score.” Well, I only bring it up here because it’s my job to inform my readers about what to expect. Especially in the denouement, the tenor of The Pitcher is far more “Harlequin Romance” than “gritty inner-city drama about a tough Mexican-American kid.” It’s a Hollywood Ending that oozes smarm.

I have a few other quibbles (in fact, several) but I have already gone on way too long – no matter what I say or think, this is a compelling read that even the most cynical among us can enjoy, and even if that means we must keep our cranky alter-egos shackled in a dark basement corner.

Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA

Follow @KenKorczak

Rocket Man by William Hazelgrove is a funny, entertaining novel which will appeal to a popular audience but delivers a troubling indictment of our times

Review by KEN KORCZAK

One of our greatest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, gives us a powerful paragraph in her 1969 National Book Award winning novel “Them.” In the book, a confused former college student who flunked out of Prof. Oates’ English composition class is writing her a letter. The student writes:

You said, “Literature gives form to life.” I remember you saying that very clearly. What is form? Why is it better than the way life happens by itself? I hate all that, all those lies, so many words in all those books … But I remember you saying that about form. Form. I don’t know what that word means.

Ah yes — “Literature gives form to life.”

That line kept drifting into my mind as I was reading ROCKET MAN by Chicago-area writer WILLIAM HAZELGROVE. But also as I read, I was thinking: “I bet this book is barely fiction at all, but rather a more-or-less spun version of real events from the author’s life.” As a matter a fact, he suggests this is somewhat the case in an afterword note to readers.

And so, like that poor student, one might ask Mr. Hazelgrove: “Why? Why is this book of fiction better than the way your life itself actually happened?

Ms. Oates provides the answer: Because fiction brings form to life.

This is what enables William Hazelgrove to hold up a mirror not just to himself, but to all of middle class America. By making this a work of fiction, he brings it home to us all, helping bring form to our lives.

I noticed that other reviewers frequently latched onto the term “middle class angst” to describe what the author is getting at in this tale. But I think another term captures it more accurately: “Postmodern ennui.”

Websters defines ennui this way: “A feeling of weariness and disgust; dullness and languor of spirits, arising from satiety or want of interest.

The viewpoint character of Rocket Man, Dale Hammer, meets this definition well. He is a burned out novelist mooning over the long-past glory of his three published books, now years out of print. Sailing into middle age and a mid-life crisis, he is too exhausted to write another. He also has achieved a kind materialistic satiety – even though it’s a false gratification because he gained it by taking on ruinous debt. He displays languor of spirit. He may still be obsessed with his literary career, but he has inexplicable misplaced it, like a screwdriver lost in a junk drawer.

So how about the postmodern part? Well, his psychic ennui is being brought on by his immersion in the materialistic and grotesquely avaricious nature of modern American society.

Other great writers, such as Norman Mailer, talked about this kind of stuff all the time. In a 1991 Time magazine interview, Mailer said:

We’ve got an agreeable, comfortable life here as Americans. But under it there’s a huge, free-floating anxiety. Our inner lives, our inner landscape is just like that sky out there — it’s full of smog. We really don’t know what we believe anymore, we’re nervous about everything.

Mailer was also getting at this, albeit tangentially, in his “White Negro” essay of the late 1950s. In it he says that what psychologists call “sublimation” has broken down among Americans because “proper sublimation depends on a reasonable tempo of history.” (Note: sublimation is when we transform are worst primitive traits of lust and violence into positive action for the good of society.)

William E. Hazelgrove

Mailer said our modern society is moving, changing and evolving too rapidly for sublimation to work properly. This might be the situation we see inflicted upon the protagonist of Rocket Man. He’s a good guy and innocent at his core, but the fast-madness of modern life and the constant grasping for material comforts and status is eroding his ability to sublimate his inner demons.

To this end, Dale Hammer keeps getting into small and major-sized jams. His bills are going unpaid, he is ignoring his children, he has alienated his wife to the edge of divorce. He also incites petty scrapes with the law; he sips an alcohol-laced cocktail while driving with kids in the back seat, he speeds in school zones, he bristles at even minor figures of authority. He has devolved without guilt into the role of pathetic small-time slum lord. He’s snarky, sarcastic, irresponsible and lazy.

Yet, despite all this, we can all still like him. We even root for him to triumph over the mess he has made of his life. That’s because, more than anything, we clearly see he is dazed and confused in an blameless sort of way. It’s as if he woke up one day, looked around at the train wreck of his existence, and asked himself: How did I get here? This is my life? Some kind of terrible mistake has been made!

We feel sympathy for him because we all see ourselves in Dale Hammer. So many of us have made all the same mistakes, and, like Dale Hammer, we are bewildered about how things got this way. The neo-slavery of debt? Nonstop work and stress? A country bitterly divided Left and Right? The mindless brutality of AM talk radio? This is the American Dream?

Can you believe that what I’m reviewing here is billed as a “comic novel?” Ha,ha! Well, damned if it isn’t! I’m confident that 99 out of 100 readers will get big laughs from Rocket Man, even if it’s the whistling in the graveyard variety prompted by gallows humor.

As for me, I kept thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “I laugh because I must not cry. That is all. That is all.”

NOTE: See also my review of William Hazelgrove’s latest book, THE PITCHER

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

Follow @KenKorczak