Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: The Might-Have-Been by Joseph M. Schuster

Baseball might be America's game but it has always struck me as about as exciting as watching the grass grow. So it might seem odd that I do, in fact, cheerfully read books set in the baseball world. I don't think the game is a metaphor for life or anything so deep like others before me do. I am just fascinated by the fact that so many young boys will spend countless years of their lives chasing the dream of professional baseball, weathering disappointment after disappointment, coming close but missing that brass ring time after time. And baseball seems a crueler mistress than other professional sports, at least from my outsider's perspective with all the farm teams and different levels. Yet these boys (and they generally are boys)persevere.

Edward Everett Yates, the main character in Joseph Schuster's debut novel is one such boy. He has dreamed all his life of playing in The Show and he has the talent to keep plugging along through the minors, waiting for his moment, that moment when he gets the call. And unlike for so many, it does eventually come. He gets called up to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. And it seems that his brass ring is well in hand. His first game he hits a sacrifice bunt to advance runners. But in his second game, he is having the game of his life despite terrible weather threatening to end the game when in one split second, his decision to climb the fence to catch a ball tears asunder everything for which he's worked so hard. Edward Everett destroys his knee and his future in the big leagues. But he can't quite let go of the game that was to have determined the arc of his entire life even though no team is interested in him anymore. And really, even though 30 years on he is a minor league manager rather than a player retired from the majors, baseball has in fact defined his lonely life.

Told from three very different times in Edward Everett's life, this novel highlights the role that chance and luck play in everyone's life. But it also shows the ways in which our own choices play every bit as big a role. Edward Everett allows his dream to overshadow everything else in his life. His relationships with women, up to an including marriage, have all failed. He has no family beyond his epileptic dog. He not only had no career as a major league ball player, but even as a coach/manager, he is languishing in the minors, Single A even, trying to groom kids who have some talent but are unlikable or kids who are nice in every way but fall short talent-wise, to succeed in the game that has caused Edward Everett himself to turn away from anyone or anything that might have offered him another path or a different, perhaps more fulfilling and certainly less lonely, life.

The lack of connection between Edward Everett and any of the other characters is actually rather sad. His character in his later years is a portrait of a pitiful, might-have-been, just as the title suggests. He is so overwhelmed with regret for the life that he never had a chance to live that he hasn't bothered to live the life he has either. While the tone throughout the novel is melancholic thanks to Edward Everett's numerous lost opportunities, there's also a stultifying air that slows the book down. This stultifying sense is apropos given Edward Everett's downward life trajectory but it can bog the reader down as well. For a reader uninterested or unfamiliar with baseball, there are also quite a few game and player statistics thrown into the novel too. While these numbers are certainly important for a manager looking to keep working at his career, they can overwhelm the point those numbers are intended to make in the text.

As a cautionary tale about the importance of human connection and the need to sometimes temper dreams, this novel works. It is depressing and slow and makes me glad that my boys have never much liked baseball, not to play and not to watch. As a late middle-aged failure, there's not much to root for in Edward Everett who has thoughtlessly thrown out every chance he's ever had for happiness since his career ending injury. A decent enough story, this definitely took longer than it should have to engage my interest and make me invest the time in it to finish it. Baseball fans certainly might appreciate it more than I did.

Thanks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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