Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review: Changing Pitches

Changing Pitches, by Steve Kluger
8.5/10, a fun drama or dramatic comedy about an old pitcher figuring out the secrets of love and the knuckleball

I was introduced to Steve Kluger via his brilliant "Last Days of Summer," the story of a boy and a baseball player developing a family bond, told through letters exchanged between them and their circle of friends. This epistolary style brings an immediacy and a candor to the work, making the reader feel like he's really seeing private communications between two people. It makes us trust the words more, because there is no evident narrator to hide behind. It's also a hellishly difficult style to pull off successfully. That alone is to his credit, let alone the beautiful story he penned.

The next book I read, "Almost Like Being In Love," got none of the publicity that followed "Last Days of Summer." Of course, it had nothing to do with baseball or nostalgia; it was a gay romance, pure and simple. Not that I'm crying bias or anything; the epistolary style didn't work as well here (some entries of Travis's "journal" feel like narrative that needed to be excused somehow), and there is, strangely, not as much at stake as there is in "Last Days of Summer." Still, "Almost Like Being In Love" overcomes these issues with the sharp wit and laugh-out-loud funny banter Kluger dreams up for his characters.

That same banter and wit are on display in "Changing Pitches," a book rescued from out-of-print limbo by the Authors Guild project. Deservedly so. To say it's not quite as good as "Almost Like Being In Love" is not a slight. "Changing Pitches" suffers from some of the same flaws, exacerbated by the cast of characters being mostly baseball players. Think "Bull Durham," if the whole team had their same personalities, but the education and quick wit of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner). Even when Kluger's characters are uneducated, they are very aware of their lack of education and use it ironically. This makes the book less realistic, but a heck of a fun read.

The basic plot of "Changing Pitches" follows Scotty MacKay, a 36-year-old pitcher whose fastball and All-Star days are fading memories. Reluctantly, he takes the advice of his catcher and lifelong friend Buddy and begins to learn new pitches: curve, slider, knuckleball. When Buddy is injured, Scotty has to continue to learn under his replacement, Jason Cornell, who is so perfect it makes Scotty's teeth grind. Of course, there's much more to it than that.

Scotty also has a live-in girlfriend, an actress named Joanie, who would seem to be perfect for him. Yet they're still not married. It becomes evident to Scotty over the course of the Washington Senators' season that he has to figure out his pitches, his teammate, and his girlfriend issues if he's going to do okay at this "getting old" thing.

Kluger does a terrific job of portraying the baseball world for those in the know. The Senators left Washington in the sixties to become the Minnesota Twins, but here they are playing in 1982 in a league that is otherwise the one we remember. Players who figure into the story for any longer than an anecdote are made up (and, in a clever moment, one of Kluger's made-up characters makes up a baseball player of his own in order to tell a story). However, Kluger clearly knows his baseball, and uses real player names whenever possible, even attributing them some of their known personality. The punchline of one joke isn't funny unless you realize that all the people Scotty is listing off are catchers--you could glean that from the previous text of the manuscript, but I certainly wouldn't have if I hadn't known a few key names.

Although I said it's not quite as good a book, I think "Changing Pitches" handles the idea of gay self-realization in a more mature, realistic way than "Almost Like Being In Love." In the latter, the characters are engaged in a farce of sorts and seem to know it, even commenting once or twice on the unlikelihood of their plot. "Changing Pitches" feels, at least as far as the story and main characters are concerned, real (well--Joanie is almost too good to be true).

Again, though, Kluger hasn't quite mastered the epistolary style in this one. Alongside notes from one person to another are Scotty's "journals" (a thinly disguised narrative), transcripts of on-the-mound conversations (fun, and an important part of the book, but you can't shake the question in your head: who's writing them?), and posted notes by the team on the bulletin board. The overall effect works really well (and who am I to complain about journals being thinly disguised narratives?); I only dock points because I have "Last Days of Summer" to compare it to.

I do think that if the reader doesn't have at least a passing interest in the game of baseball, the early part of the story may be a bit slow and boring. I found it fun, because I like reading the "what is their life really like" stories of ballplayers, and I like reading someone who's knowledgeable about a sport. But if your main character's big problem is learning to throw a new pitch he doesn't want to in order to avoid losing a job he feels he's already lost, there isn't a lot for a reader to latch onto. It isn't 'til a third or halfway through the book that Scotty really starts fighting for himself.

That said, that isn't a major flaw because the book is a quick read--I read most of it on a flight from San Jose to L.A. It moves fast, because it's largely dialogue, and the writing is bright, snappy, and immensely enjoyable. It's just a little more enjoyable if you happen to know something about baseball. Kluger has another book due in May of next year, and you'd better believe I'll be in line to read that one, too. Anything he writes is still better than a good chunk of everything else out there.

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