A promising idea is muffed in this lackluster first novel about a former baseball player’s mission to smuggle a young pitching phenom out of Cuba.
Dennis Gibb, 34, an ex-minor-league catcher now working as a scout, narrates in a weary, sardonic voice the story of his trip to El Refugio and abrasive meeting with his choleric contact—obese misfit veteran scout Charlie Dance—then Dennis’s adventures in the company of local-hero lefthander Ramon Sagasta. The mismatched pair make their arduous way through a scrubby “jungle” to a waiting motorboat. The boat revs up dependably, before a storm sends them back to land. But the narrative stalls repeatedly, because Shawver allows his protagonist to woolgather and fulminate redundantly about his own failed career and this last chance to redeem himself, the differences between great athletes and ordinary mortals, and the plight of Ramon’s virginal girlfriend Rosa (with whom Gibb rather improbably ends up), whose “sacrifice” for her man is passively accepted as “an exorbitant but necessary price for Ramon’s freedom.” The athlete himself, a winning combination of reflexive machismo and forthright guilelessness, has intermittent appeal. But the story itself is underimagined, and its few action sequences (such as an encounter with two officers of Castro’s Revolutionary Police, who are gay lovers) are pretty hard to swallow. Only, oddly enough, in interspersed descriptions and discussions of baseball technique and the major leagues’ infrastructure in relation to hopeful Third World prospects, does the tale come to life.
Shawver knows his subject all right, but hasn’t successfully fictionalized it. If this were a ballgame, most viewers would tune out before both teams had batted around.