Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book review: "Box Socials"

While John has been working hard to chronicle our growing readership this week, I've been busy turning 30. That's right, I hit the big milestone yesterday. One of my late-twenty-something friends politely pointed out that she'd "never be as old" as me. And my wife has been quick to note that she's only 28 (even though in a month she'll be 29).

Although my old-man eyesight is quickly fading and I have to be in bed by 9 p.m., I've also had time to do some reading lately. My most recent baseball novel conquest "Box Socials" by W.P. Kinsella.

Kinsella found success and fortune with his classic baseball novel, "Shoeless Joe," and he worked hard to make lightning strike again with his later novels, many of which also focused on the game. "Box Socials" starts with a little bit of baseball and ends with a little bit of baseball, but the middle is filled with a whole lot of something else.

Now, most baseball novels I've read aren't really about baseball at all. But most of "Box Socials" takes place so far away from the game, I'd be hesitant to call it a baseball novel if it was written by anyone else.

Before I read "Box Socials," I had a couple opinions of the novel to choose from. John says he didn't like it at all, but my wife - whom we've proven is much smarter than me - absolutely loves this book. Not surprisingly, I fall somewhere in the middle.

The first section of "Box Socials" works really well. We're introduced to a unique, rural area outside of Edmonton, Alberta, referred to as the Six Towns and the interesting and oddly-named people who live there through the eyes of a wonderful unreliable narrator. But in the second section, the previously-unnamed narrator is suddenly given a name. I'm not sure why; I think Kinsella could have easily found a way to write the book without revealing the narrator's identity.

Anyway. "Box Socials" tells the story - in a roundabout way - of Truckbox Al McClintock, a ballplayer in the Six Towns area who once hit five home runs in one game, four of them into and one clean across the Pembina River. Because of his display, Truckbox Al was given a chance to play in an exhibition game "against a team of genuine Major Leaguers, which included Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, and Joe DiMaggio himself."

That's all set up in the first couple pages. The exhibition game takes place on the last couple pages of the book. Baseball is only mentioned in passing the rest of the way through.

But the stuff in the middle is not necessarily bad. It's just different. The writing style is at times delightful, but its use of repetitive phrases can be downright infuriating. I'd venture to say "Box Socials" is more well-written than "Shoeless Joe," which had its flaws in style, but of course Kinsella's most famous work had a much more classic and timeless story.

"Box Socials" is not your typical baseball book. In fact, it's not really a baseball book at all. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it.

I think if Kinsella had found a way to conceal the identity of his narrator, "Box Socials" might be his best work. But what we have instead is a novel that is complex and over-simple, beautiful and ugly all at the same time.

--Matt Kelsey

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