Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blockade Billy by Stephen King

Sometimes I feel a little strange when I'm writing up my first review for a book by a major author, because while I may have been reading them for years, this could be their first appearance on the blog.

Thus, if I'm not happy with the book I read, it can feel like I don't like the author, which is often not true. Such is the case with Blockade Billy, a book that feels like it could have been a lot more had King taken the time to write it well instead of tossing it out there in time for baseball season.

Blockade Billy is the story of a baseball player no one's heard of, because he's been erased from the record books. Only a few old timers know him, and one is willing to tell all to King himself, as it beats the boredom of sitting in a nursing home.

Soon we learn about Billy, an amazingly talented ballplayer that clearly has something to hide. As we move deeper into his magical season, you know something has to give, and it does--with a bang that's about as obvious as when a player is out at home by 30 feet.

Written in the narrative style with multiple references to the old ballplayer talking to King, it's formatted much like Deloris Claiborne, another King work I wasn't fond of, for much the same reason. Both tales never offer much on what the promise and in the end, I was disappointed. The twists just don't materialize, and I expect better from King as a writer.

In the case of this book, part of the problem is length. This book is barely 50 pages long, and I was able to read it in only a little over a half hour. As a magazine story, which was much of King's early career, it might have worked. As a novella, with the King name attached, I figured on a lot more writing. Its brevity is not refreshing for the wordy King. Instead, it constricts him, and leaves time only for a quick summary of the details as to why Billy's tale must come to the end it does.

From what I understand, King wrote this in about two weeks, and it shows. There's little plot, the character of Billy is a cipher, and if you don't know much about baseball, I'm not sure this book will mean anything to you. The trouble is, if you *do* know a lot about baseball, King's puzzling decision to make his team major-league level just creates all sorts of logistical headaches for no good reason. (Perhaps the biggest of which is the way in which Billy gets on the team in the first place. No big league club, even in this 1950s setting, would have done what this fake team from Jersey does.)

Billy could easily have played for a minor league team, and still do all that he does. In fact, the drama of having him come so close to being in the bigs before the crucial moment would have added so much. That's a lost layer of drama here.

Unfortunately, that's what happens when you rush things. Details that might be otherwise thought out get missed, and it mars the overall quality. Blockade Billy's logical leaps, obvious conclusion, and wandering text all make me nostalgic for the days when books were given stricter editing.

It doesn't help that the ending, while predictable in terms of general concept, throws more things at you as a reader than a five-tool pitcher. So many gaps in the story are covered in the last ten pages, you'd think it was a set of working notes rather than finished product. I appreciate the closure, but if your story is that complex, then take the time to flesh it out. There's no harm in more pages, especially when you're Stephen King.

I also found the setting to be weak, despite efforts to ground the text in the past. It's obvious King knows and loves his baseball history, but the references to vintage players don't fall into place very well. It's name dropping for name dropping sake. The idea of a simpler time when the game was played hard is probably what's supposed to come across, but I just didn't get anything other than a feeling of grumpiness. It didn't make me pine for the old days--except maybe Stephen King's old days.

The narrative style of the book is vintage King, and you either like it or hate it by now, after he's had such a long career. This narrator talks like so many others in King's books, and I like it, except when they're narrative first person, as this one is. The natural tone of King's best characters just feels forced to me when I have to read it like this. Let the point of view stand on its own, and don't get in the way with comments about needing water, especially if you've already done that before in your career.

Stephen King may love baseball, but his two attempts at it in fiction, Blockade Billy and Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, just don't serve his beloved sport well. He's an all-star writer that in this case, managed to strike out. For the price of this book and the size of its text, Blockade Billy just isn't recommendable. I'd turn elsewhere for my baseball or King fixes. Maybe next time the two meet, the results will be better. For now though, let this one ride the pine.

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