A wistful, moving first novel from the Montana storywriter (Dry Rain, 1997; Blood Knot, 1998, etc.) concentrates with sometimes riveting, sometimes labored intensity on the troubled loving relationship between a brother and sister growing up, and apart from their parents, in a West Texas backwater.
Fifteen-year-old Austin Scheer is a gifted baseball pitcher destined to become “the next Nolan Ryan,” according to his older sister Abilene, a college dropout who was herself the real “fireballer” (and, being female, a Little League reject) and is Austin’s self-appointed “coach” and taskmaster. Austin tells the story of Abilene’s on-again, off-again relationship with their family, though he stubbornly rejects accumulating evidence that her sudden departures and irrational seizures of violence and bizarre behavior (which culminate in an unneeded surgical procedure and a near-successful suicide attempt) demonstrate a by-now diagnosed bipolar disorder. Fromm balances this skewed perspective on Abilene’s travail against Austin’s immediate (if as quickly truncated) success as the bellwether of his high-school team (a “near no-hitter” in his first start), and the frustrated efforts of their long-suffering father Clayton (himself a onetime baseball phenom) and embittered mother Ruby to reconcile “how all this started”—the mantra with which Clayton’s interminable family stories inevitably begin—with the havoc the unpredictable Abilene continues wreaking. There’s a lot to like in this suspenseful if claustrophobic tale (excepting the vividly depicted four principals, other characters are sketchy shadows): a brooding, doom-laden atmosphere; a subtly handled undercurrent of sexual attraction and fear between brother and sister; and especially the extended dénouement, in which Abilene essentially blesses her adoring, grieving sibling by releasing him (“You’ve spent your whole life trying to be like me, Austin. And now I take pills to be somebody else”).
Underplotted, and a bit redundant. Otherwise, a powerful and promising debut from a diligent writer who looks like the Far West’s answer to Alabama’s Larry Brown.