Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Southpaw by Mark Harris


The Southpaw is a book about a lefthanded pitcher from Perkinsville, New York who can throw a mean screwball. When we are first introduced to the narrator, he's still a "green" small town boy who divides his time between hero worshipping the great immortals of the game and working two jobs, which are pitching on a local team and working at the gas station. He's in love with the girl next door, a bookworm named Holly who lives with her professor uncle and turns Henry down proposal after proposal. Shortly into the book the team that he has been following for years, the Mammoths, ask him into their camp and he leaves his widower father to go train at Aqua Clara. He works his way up, learning to make sure his discipline matches his ego, and by the end of the book we find homeslice starring in the World Series with a record of 26 to 4. He accomplishes anything that any baseball player could want for in their entire career in only his first professional season.

The novel is set up so that as you go along you find out that the narrator is supposedly writing the book himself, and Holly is always correcting him and telling him to fix this or that. The narrator is fairly simple minded and so maybe this explains why the book itself is so poorly written and all the characters speak the same way that he does... This is especially irritating when it comes to Holly's dialogue, because it seems strange that a nerdy girl who spends her time reading canonical poetry would speak like an uneducated hick. It's rare that I don't enjoy a book but it was difficult to make it through The Southpaw and there's no way that I would finish it if I didn't have to talk about it in class.

One positive thing I will say is that this is not one of those typical baseball stories where the writer glorifies the sport to the point where you'd think understanding it is like unlocking the code to the rosetta stone of American culture. As the book progresses, Henry gets to know the men he looked up to for years before having a place on the team himself, and none of them are anything like he thought they were. His idol, Sad Sam, is a womanizer and an alcoholic who has put on too much weight from the booze and has to run around the field every day for weeks in a plastic shirt so he can shape up while everyone else has their normal practice. Henry isn't a hero anywhere but the field, and can't be drafted for the military because when there's any kind of fighting or violence near him he goes into what he calls his coward crouch, has extreme fits of anxiety, and becomes sick. In the end, Henry becomes fed up with the coach and his fellow players, tells them off so badly that none of his friends will stand behind him, and flicks off an entire stadium. He had accomplished all his dreams and none of them where what he thought they would be.

The last thing worth mentioning is that it's interesting to see how Henry handles the racism that's surrounding him. While he is white, the first friend that he makes on the team is an African-American second baseman named Perry. Henry wants to do things like go out to breakfast with Perry their first day and take Perry to a hotel party when they are both signed on the team and when Perry is unable to do these things because of Jim Crow laws, Henry would find ways to show his loyalty to Perry the best he could without alienating himself from the rest of the players. There's one scene were Henry goes off at the hotel owner who houses the team in Aqua Clara because he refuses to let Perry stay there, which leaves Perry to stay in the camp barracks with the newbies who have yet to be signed and their fight makes the newspapers.
This is the first of four books about Henry Wiggins. You can be sure I won't bother reading the rest.

Here's a sample:

"The hit and run is 1 of the prettiest plays you will ever see. The runner on first will break for second. The second baseman on the other teams goes over to cover. The righthanded hitter hits behind the runner, right through the slot where the baseman was. Only he ain't there no more. It is the kind of a play where if you miss the sign things is fouled up, but good. If the batter don't hit, the runner will get throwed out at second, or if the runner don't run the baseman will stay where he was and gobble up the ball and turn it into a double play for sure."


Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nihil Novum said...

I like books about baseball, but that excerpt is uninspiring.

Also, I accidentally posted a comment under Liz's name and deleted it.

Christopher said...

26-4 is really really good.

Carlton said...

Personally, I like 25 or 6 to 4.

That excerpt made me laugh.