Janko (Buffalo Boy and Geronimo, 2006) delivers a meditative and lyrical baseball novel.
Billy Donachio is the bench coach for the National League pennant-winning 2018 Chicago Cubs, a fictional version of the team with glancing parallels to real life. Similar parallels reign in the novel’s political world, in which semiauthoritarian Republican President Michael J. Trent runs for re-election against surprise Democratic candidate Khadijah Jamil, a Muslim woman from Chicago’s South Side. Donachio is a perennial loser—a lifelong coach who never quite made it as a player; for every team he’s played with, he seems to have been bad luck. However, as the Cubs head into a World Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox, he’s heartened by his team’s unique trio of stars: Johnny Stompiano, an irrepressible base-stealer and political activist; Hector Jesús Mijango Cruz, an openly gay slugger; and Arshan “Azzy” Azzam, the team’s ace pitcher. All three are devoted to bringing a sense of poetry back to the game—quite literally, in the form of verse on video billboards outside Wrigley Field—and are devoted to Jamil’s controversial candidacy. As the series progresses, Donachio becomes increasingly attached to two orphan boys, Sam and Jackie, who he believes are the team’s good-luck charms, and he also begins to steal notes and letters from his players’ lockers. These notes, full of poetry and philosophy, inspire Donachio and the Cubs to new, yet precarious, heights. Janko’s prose is by turns thoughtful and poetic, and over the course of the story, he weaves together a multitude of voices, including Donachio’s inner monologue, rat-a-tat-tat dugout chatter, shock-jock radio play-by-play, and the unceasing roar of the fans. Each character has his or her own finely wrought cadence, and their actions throughout the plot are all believable and well-earned. The version of America that Janko imagines here can strain credulity at times; no ballplayer has ever spoken like these do (Azzy says of Satchel Paige: “Old as he was, he whipped hot strikes burning down the heavens”), and the political race swings wildly. However, the authorial brio is enough to keep readers engaged and entranced.
A spirited vision of America and its national game.