A small-town boy comes of age with the help of a retired baseball player.
Archer City, Texas, sounds (to a Yankee, at least) very much like Larry McMurty country: flat, dusty, off the beaten track, and really, really small. A little town where everybody seems to be known by his job (e.g., Coot the barber, Benny the mechanic) may not be a bad place to grow up—until, that is, you get to be old enough to drive and start to think of going places. In 1966, that’s almost the point that 13-year-old Jim Black has reached. A normal, skittish adolescent male, Jim hangs out with his pals Gary and Charles, plays center field on the Little League team, and has become just interested enough in girls to make a fool of himself from time to time. He also likes to spend time by himself, fishing in the Little Wichita River. That’s how he meets Sam Washington. A onetime pitcher in the old Negro Leagues, Sam was never famous, but he was a good friend of Satchel Paige and managed to strike out Sam Musial during an exhibition game in St. Louis. He becomes a kind of father-figure for Jim, whose own dad died in a car wreck years before. Despite the proper ingredients (the South, the ’60s, the backwoods rednecks), this does not reduce itself to a story of race or segregation, although they’re elements of the tale. Rather, it’s an old-fashioned and quite simple account of youth and age, as Jim begins to understand the breadth of new experiences the world has in store, partly through Sam’s example, partly through his own small adventures (tornado accidents, boating deaths, first love, etc.). When tragedy finally strikes Sam, it is more than a sorrow for Jim—it is a warning, and a promise, of what may be in store for him someday.
Refreshing in its simplicity: a charming and very readable debut.