Bilbo at the Bat

Michael Chabon throws a curve with a youth baseball fantasy

Michael Chabon
Summerland
Hyperion

A heart harder than mine might approach this novel with some cynicism. Visions of J.K. Rowling dancing in his head, Michael Chabon has written a children's book for Americans, translating Anglophilic fantasies (Narnia, Hogwarts, et al.) into baseball, American Indian mythology, and tall tales--and, not incidentally, dreams of similar market penetration in the preteen demographic.

But, to Chabon's credit, his immense likability and immense talent get him over the appearance of cynicism. His regular-kid hero, Ethan Feld, is, as the first chapter describes him, "the worst ballplayer in the history of Clam Island, Washington," a magical place where it never rains. "Healthy and alert" and "not a terrible klutz," Ethan is nonetheless a walking disaster on the field who has already learned the secrecy and self-protection that shield him from his teammates' contempt. He lives with his widowed father, a designer of dirigibles, who provides painfully unwavering support for his son's ineptitude. (In a particularly wonderful image, poor Ethan catches his equally hapless dad's eye in the stands before the start of a game, seeing on his face "a great big horrible hopeful smile.") Ethan's friend and companion in adventure, the spunky Jennifer T. Rideout, is the team's best player: "Her spitting was as professional as the rest of her game."

When a rainstorm suddenly hits and pro-development agents start tearing down picturesque ruins, it is a signal that forces in the universe are spinning out of control. The magical protection that has kept the island's weather the fairest in human memory is weakening. Chabon's resident bad guy, Coyote, with "the face of someone who could see no difference between looking for trouble and looking for fun," is on the prowl, seeking to destroy all the worlds in existence. He aims to bring about "Ragged Rock," the "last out in the bottom of the ninth." As in all good quests, Ethan and Jennifer T. join a variety of unusual companions (among them a boy who thinks he's an android, the home-run champion of three worlds, and, later, a morose Sasquatch) on an unlikely voyage to save the world and discover unknown strengths within. This they will do primarily by playing baseball against all sorts of opponents--goblins, ferishers (the "real name" of fairies), and various monsters.

Any reasonably diligent reader of Chabon's fiction has noticed his essential gentleness and his solicitude for nerds, geeks, and the last kid picked. Which is to say that he understands fantasy intuitively, not simply as a genre or art form but as a vital daily resource for its teen adherents. He puts all of those faculties to good use here. Indeed, the joyful invention just keeps on coming, as when the ragged band of kids and monsters takes on figments of American folklore (Mike Fink, John Henry, Paul Bunyan) in a game that features backwoods spell casting, boasts, and some inept fielding. And there are allusions to Lord of the Rings, Ring Lardner, Norse mythology (Ragged Rock), the Gashouse Gang, Roberto Clemente, and the Negro Leagues, as well as attacks on corporate redevelopment projects and mean ten-year-old jocks. There's even a defense of vegetarianism.

I do wish that the book were more self-aware--by the fourth and best entry in the Harry Potter series, Rowling pointedly observes that no magic can exempt Harry from a cult of celebrity that may well destroy his closest friendships. Chabon's narrative island is comparatively distant from the charged culture of our mainland. The old scout handbook that Jennifer T.'s great-uncle hands her, filled with pseudo-Indian lore for children, suggests the wonderful Americanist premise that kitsch ritual, rather than authentic historical tradition, is our truest cultural resource. (And what are Hogwarts, Middle Earth, and Narnia, with their lengthy backstories, but reflections of Europeans' long memories?) Yet when the handbook serves its purpose later on, it does so in a disappointingly traditional fashion, just like any other Magic Book.

It is a similarly American relentlessness--dancing past collapse, telling stories long after night has fallen, piling on the anecdotes--that elevates this book well above whatever stew of calculation and sweetness it was conceived in. Summerland is big-hearted, brilliantly resourceful, and unstintingly generous: a fitting present for the youth of America, who deserve fantasies of their own.

 
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