A small Midwestern city provides the setting for Panno’s (Shocks & Bar-B-Q, 2011, etc.) novel about baseball and family.
Michael Carmello is 11 years old in the winter of 1958, and small for his age. In the room he shares with his older brother, Frank, he’s developed an elaborate game involving baseball cards and bottle caps, which allows him to live out his fantasies of someday pitching in the World Series. It also helps him work out the frustrations of his daily life, including bullies, a father and brother who are constantly at odds, sisters who baffle him, and a baby brother who clings to life in the hospital. Much of the book’s first half is dedicated to developing this mise-en-scene, and it’s sprinkled with the sort of vignettes that are the war stories of boyhood, about swiping things from the local convenience store, a big fire downtown, or a well-placed snowball. There are also descriptive passages, reminiscent of Richard Russo’s work, which evoke the chilly endlessness of winter by the Great Lakes. Sometimes these moments are evocative, but sometimes they’re a bit strained: “I could hear the scratch of squirrels’ feet digging into the bark of the trees as they scurried along, seemingly without order or purpose, their jerky movements like actors in a silent film.” Eventually, Michael develops a friendship with a man named Cornelius (“Neely”), a terminal patient at the hospital where his mother works. Neely, it turns out, once pitched in the Negro leagues, and Michael finds that he has much to learn from him—not only about baseball, but also about life. The first part of the book reads very much like a memoir, its stories connected mostly by the fact that they share the same protagonist; the second half reads more like fiction, with Michael’s narratives set in sharp relief to Neely’s history. Overall, the author writes competently, if not transcendently. However, the book does deal gracefully with issues of race and faith, and it reveals how Michael’s young mind parses them as basic issues of fairness while still grasping some of their complexity. Panno also shows how Michael and Neely both deserve the chance to dream, to improve, and to prove themselves on the mound.
A novel that fans of baseball fiction and coming-of-age stories will find worth a read.