Stephen King goes back to a well from which he has drawn some sweet water over the years. His novella "Blockade Billy," a first-person narrative from the perspective of an old third-base coach playing out the bottom of the ninth in a retirement home, captures the tone of such great King works as "The Man in the Black Suit" and The Green Mile.
First, the packaging. It's attractive. This is a Scribner 5" by 7.25" hardcover original. The titular character, a bizarre natural athlete with a penchant for blocking home plate, is presumably rendered in the striking artwork on the left.
The story is paired with his interesting short story "Morality," but still--I paid eleven bucks for this thing. But the packaging is part of King's appeal as a writer, I think. From his subscription experiment with "The Plant" to his release of "UR" for the kindle and his serialization of The Green Mile, King like to play with the medium. I give him credit (not unlike Joe Konrath, who is blazing trails of his own in the world of e-books) and hope he keeps getting creative.
King, who has commented that he wants his legacy to be a strong reputation for being an "American writer," does two things exceptionally well: render the creepy American small town and write old men.
Oh, my God, you mean Blockade Billy. Nobody's asked me about him in years. Of course, no one asks me much of anything in here, except if I'd like to sign up for Polka Night at the K of P Hall downtown or something called Virtual Bowling. That's right here in the Common Room, My advice to you, Mr. King--you didn't ask for it, but I'll give it to you--is don't get old, and if you do, don't let your relatives put you in a zombie hotel like this one.
It's a funny thing, getting old.
So begins a story about deception and wasted talent. It's a keen, quick read--the baseball vernacular so spot-on perfect that it's a must-read if you love the national pastime.
Billy is immediately compelling. He's a rook out of nowhere, a seemingly perfect mimic of the people around him. He acts as a mirror for their own behaviors, reflecting back on them an image of themselves.
Think The Talented Mr. Ripley and you won't be far off.
This is a story that cooks through a month in the big leagues--a gripping look at a borderline Hall-of-Fame pitcher and the meteoric lifespan of a rookie phenom.
These things happen periodically in the bigs, of course. No, I don't mean folks capable of the type of thing Blockade Billy is capable of, but rookies who burn bright for a month and fade away. Jerome Walton and his huge hitting streak comes to mind. As does Matt Nokes and all those late-summer dingers a decade or more ago.
The climax and resolution were, ultimately, unsatisfactory. It felt rushed, and the care with which King described the ballgames seemed to diminish in the third act. I would love to have seen a longer version of the story, but the length is what it needs to be...
King fans will love it, overall. I did, and I am (a fan). I'm looking forward to his fall release, Full Dark, No Stars.
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