When the infielders start looking forward to existential-depression conferences on the pitcher's mound, something is obviously askew in the fortunes of the unnamed National League team here--the center of Carkeet's sharply comic novel.
And it isn't only the infield: everybody is suffering from anomie. They take tentative initial steps at being each other's therapists, with some then moving on to professional help. ("It has been asked if a team can be a contender without the big stick, or with a weak bullpen, or with rookies at the corners. A related question that has not been asked is if it is possible for a team to be a contender with two of its three outfielders on Elavil.") On the field or off, they are a solid unit of psychodrama, nurturing their lives' injuries: who hates whom, bad childhoods, parenthoods, and marriages; sexual frustrations; superstitions. Every member of the team, through hilarious pain, becomes unmistakably defined: the boring third-baseman; the outfielder who hates his wife and who has a fight with a Great Dane at a barbecue; the catcher, claustrophobic in his behind-the-plate gear, saddled with horrendous elderly parents; the Dutch/Spanish right-fielder, whose accent is so impenetrable that no one ever speaks to him. ("On radio and television, he says things like 'Eesa masha goo baw club' and 'Me posetu heet mas batatas.' Once, when asked to give his opinion of two consecutive losses by Apples, he howled, 'We no pay masha goo behine eem.' It was his last interview.") And Carkeet, whose fetching debut was the mystery-satire Double Negative (1980), delivers much of this brilliant personality-comedy in wickedly knowledgeable baseball terms: "He offers at the next pitch. Indeed, he does everything involved in swinging short of actually swinging--leaning in, stepping forward, bringing his bat back a bit before beginning the swing, only to stop it at the last instant in a way that leaves him tottering on his toes. He looks like an indecisive housewife fretting over a cantaloupe purchase and finally deciding against it. He looks silly." Baseball-and-comedy, of course, is hardly a new combination play. But this sparkling, distinctive novel manages to be both very dry and laugh-out-loud funny--by treating the team in question (a pennant contender despite everything) as a cozy, screwed-up family.
All in all: the perfect way for sophisticated readers to usher in the spring-training season.