A troubled kid learns valuable lessons about love, honor and friendship during the home-run race of 1961.
Marshall Elliot’s summer is off to a great start. He’s earned a spot on the Flushing Little League All-Star roster; he’s caught the eye of the prettiest girl in town; and he’s just learned that his new next-door neighbors are none other than Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the hard-hitting Yankees duo who are duking it out to beat Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 60 home runs in one season. But before long, the dream summer starts to fall apart. Marshall can’t tell a soul about the Yankees’ hideout in Queens; his parents’ marriage starts to unravel; and soon it seems that even his own fledgling baseball career may be over before it starts. The story uses alternating first-person narratives from the perspectives of Maris, Mantle, Marshall and “fixer” Julius “Big Julie” Isaacson. Reznik (The Girl from Long Guyland, 2012) explains that the book is derived from an original screenplay she wrote in 1999 that never made it to film, and so it’s unsurprising that the characters are painted with broad cinematic strokes. Marshall is an innocent, his father’s a cad, his mother’s a fragile angel; there’s also little here to complicate the personalities of Maris (a Boy Scout and a family man) and Mantle (a pained, boozing womanizer) as they have been annealed by history. Still, there’s a reason why such tropes work for movies, and they are effective in the book, as well. Just as you’re rolling your eyes over a hackneyed plotline or two (an episode in Binghamton is excessively Dickensian) and predictable character development (he’s a gentle giant with a heart of gold!), you find yourself sucker punched by a closing sequence that tear-jerkingly fulfills the wishes of every kid who has ever had a hero, played a sport, had a crush or fought with a parent. The novel of course targets baseball fans (and especially Yankees fans), but like the best of the genre, there’s a baseball-as-metaphor-for-life theme here to which few readers will be immune.
Just like its heroes, what this book lacks in sophistication it makes up for in heart; a warm, enjoyable baseball story.