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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS
Journey into the Psyche
Book Review by Tim Walker
Brian Shawver. The Cuban Prospect. New York: Overlook Press, 2003, 224 pp., $24.95, cloth.
In the early goings of Brian Shawver's fine debut novel, the book's narrator Dennis Birch describes its central conflict as "a journey that was completely about and because of baseball." In fact, though, the novel is more an exploration of the psychology of Birchand a meditation on human greatnessthan it is a story about baseball in general, or Cuban baseball in particular.
The eponymous Cuban prospect is Ramon Diego Sagasta, a top left-handed pitcher from a tiny hamlet in Cuba. Sagasta has caught the attention of a scout working for an unnamed big league organization. The club sends Birch to help spirit Sagasta out of Cuba; the punishing details of their flight form the backbone of the story. The thirty-four-year-old Birch was himself a catchera journeyman lifer of the minor leaguesbefore becoming a small-time scout for the organization in Mexico.
The book has very little on-the-field action, all of it coming in flashbacks or retold memories. Baseball permeates the book, however. Birch, a baseball junkie who describes himself as "incapable of ending a game of catch," could hardly tell any story without returning to the game time and again. Mixed in with basic observations, Birch offers deeper insights into the game, such as when he points out the futility of overanalyzing it: "Baseball does not work theoretically, because baseball is the opposite of theory. It is simple physical action, in spite of all the strategy and tactics attached to it; each game is the story of what men do with their physical beings, their reflexes and power and nerve." He also deflates, or at least complicates, the cottage industry of comparing life to baseball: "No experience in life is truly analogous to anything that happens in baseball, at its best and worst, just as there is probably no experience in life that can truthfully be compared to another."
His deepest insights are saved for the book's major theme, which is also Birch's central fixation: the nature of greatness. Early in the book, even a simple observationabout the universal habit of complaining about the weatherleads to thoughts on this issue: "My nomadic life has taught me that people value the suffering that weather offers, they value the chance to lay themselves on the altar of climate, because people believe that suffering confers a kind of greatness. This is absurd, since greatness is rare, and suffering is common. But I digress." As the story progresses, we realize that nothing Birch says about greatness is a digression. Many adult fans of the game are sure to identify with Birch when he remembers the posters on the wall of his boyhood bedroom, back in Wichita: "Mike Schmidt, Jim Rice, Catfish Hunter . . . I worshiped them at thirty-four no less than I did at eleven."
Birch repeatedly describes himself as "groundless." "The fact is, I am quite often a groundless man. My touchstones are few, my sense of right and wrong frequently skewed; I am subject to the insistent advice of others." His own groundlessness contrasts to the innate, even simpleminded, groundedness of baseball geniuses like Sagastaindividuals who seem to bend events to fit their own needs rather than the other way around. "How is it that one casts this spell? The answer is in people like Ramon Sagasta, and you could observe them and interview them and study their motions and movements and techniques and biographies for decades and you will still never figure it out. I won't, at least."
Shawver grew up in Kansas City, and he must have grown up steeped in baseball to write a story so wise in it. The fact that he also graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop may in turn help explain the fine polish and professional fluidity of the book's writing.
For all that, a few details of the book do ring false. For example, how would a Cuban driver not know how to operate a stick shift? This fact becomes important during the flight of Birch and Sagasta, and while I'm no expert on life in Cuba, I can't imagine that Sagasta would have been exposed to automatic transmissions growing up with the ancient Chevrolets and Mercurys of his remote village in Cuba. The book also carries across very little of the historical flavor of Cuban baseball; there is no reference to Cuban greats such as Dihigo or MiŅoso anywhere in it.
Fortunately, these are minor flaws. The Cuban Prospect is a strong debut from a writer of high sensibility. It is a story written with enough baseball sense to appeal to the literate fan, as well as a story of enough psychological and narrative verve to appeal to readers beyond the range of fandom.
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