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?
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.”
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:
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
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