Monday 26 July 2010

Book Review: Blockade Billy by Stephen King

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"Even the most diehard baseball fans don't know the true story of William 'Blockade Billy' Blakely. He may have been the greatest player the game has ever seen, but today no one remembers his name. He was the first - and only - player to have his existence completely removed from the record books. Even his team is long forgotten, barely a footnote in the game's history.

"Every effort was made to erase any evidence that William Blakely played professional baseball, and with good reason. Blockade Billy had a secret darker than any pill or injection that might cause a scandal in sports today. His secret was much, much worse..." 


There's been at least a book a year bearing Stephen King's name for as long as I can remember, and I don't complain. I don't always manage to read them, but I buy them all, and I'm glad they're there - filed away in my library (alphabetically and by order of publication). Waiting. They're like security blankets, I suppose. For all the unevenness of King's work, for all the inevitable repetition, there's always something in each of his books that reminds me why I hold reading so dear. When the book doldrums come upon me, after the bitter pill of one too many epic high fantasies or some such, there's Stephen King to come back to. For good or ill, he writes like no other in this day and age. His conversational prose, lived-in characters and even - loathe though I am to admit it - his typically deflating climaxes are such distinctive traits you'd have no trouble identifying this author's work in the literary equivalent of a blind taste test. For some, its uniqueness has proven tiresome over the years. For others - for me - it's become positively reassuring.

Blockade Billy has all you'd expect from a new Stephen King, distilled from the intimidating quantities barely contained in last year's Under the Dome to more approachable proportions. It's pint-sized at only a hundred undersized pages, large in font and margins. What we have here is two short stories you might rather generously refer to as novelettes collected together in a nicely finished storybook-style edition. The titular narrative leads the pack. Purporting to be a tale told to the author ("Mr King") by an old baseball pro, George 'Granny' Grantham of the New Jersey Titans narrates the curious history of Blockade Billy, a small-town nobody who came to play for the Titans after the team lost both their catchers in the space of 48 hours. Billy is an odd sort, no doubt about it, with conversational skills akin to an iceberg's and a plaster perpetually on his finger, but he plays well enough that his teammates tolerate his quirks, and he's a huge hit with the fans. In short order, Blockade Billy becomes a local sensation - but there's a reason history has forgotten him, and by gum it's a bloody one.

What to say about "Blockade Billy"? As a layman when it comes to baseball, I found it to be pretty much impenetrable, wall to wall with enthusiastic commentary on classic matches and maneuvers which meant precisely nothing to me. I mean, it sure sounds authentic, but what do I know? It's difficult to criticise a tale so far outwith your usual stomping grounds, yet I think it would be safe to say readers without some working knowledge of the great American sport can expect to be left tepid by "Blockade Billy". Really, it's all a bit - and I hope you'll forgive me for this - inside baseball.

That said, there are enough of King's characteristic touches to make the experience of the uninitiated less of an ordeal than it might otherwise be: a central character whose way of echoing questions as if they were answers makes Blockade Billy as instantaneously memorable as some of the author's very finest; an affable, grass-is-greener narrative tone of voice; a neat and unpretentious framing device ties the whole thing up. Things heat up, too, as "Blockade Billy" approaches its climax, and the baseball talk is shelved in favour of actual storytelling.

"Blockade Billy" has its moments, then. "Morality," however - the second and final tale featured in this modest volume - is a roundly more satisfying endeavour in every sense. Unflinchingly direct and deeply disturbing, "Morality" is a riff on that old chestnut: the indecent proposal. Substitute teacher Chad and Nora, a nurse, are a perfectly happy couple. They struggle for money a bit, but between them, they get by. When Nora's private patient Winnie offers his nurse enough money for her to retire on in exchange for a certain... favour, and it's not what you think - Winnie isn't after a deathbed quickie - everything is thrown into chaos.

"Morality" just won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette, and it's no wonder. It's a story about the slippery slope of commonplace abuse that gets under your skin with such ease it could only have come from the pen of an old pro. Chad and Nora have an everyday chemistry together, and the nurse's relationship with Winnie, whose offer sets the cogs of narrative a-whirring, comes off too. The couple's descent into uncertainty and worse is a dark voyeuristic fable that alone justifies the cost of admission. Readers without some grounding in baseball fandom will find in "Blockade Billy" a mildly entertaining curiosity, not without its strengths but altogether too specific. "Morality," meanwhile, will keep us all up nights.


Blockade Billy
by Stephen king
July 2010, Hodder & Stoughton

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