Brittle Innings (1994) by Michael Bishop

BrittleInningsThe afternoon’s fractured dazzle hung on us like warm honey, golden and clingy (43).

…and sweet and sticky, cloying and suffocating. An apt description for a novel thick with the muggy, oppressive climate of the southern United States in the midst of World War II and at the height of baseball season, where nostalgia ambers and crystallizes the past, but stops short of sweetening reality.

But this is a tale about monsters. The daily monsters. The people monsters. The go-about-your-business-and-don’t-you-dare-try-to-change-the-status-quo monsters. The oppression monsters.

It’s the perfect place for a real monster to hide.

Legendary baseball recruiter Danny Boles recounts his early days as a 17-year-old unknown ball player from Oklahoma enlisted to play for the class-C Hellbenders of Georgia. He spends that first year of his ball career living in a decaying southern mansion with his teammates, sharing a sweltering attic room with the enigmatic Hank “Jumbo” Clerval. Boles shares his memories of daily life and big games as team jealousies and racial tension course through the tale.

BrittleInnings2Southern gothic in flavor, but never quite so peculiar, Bishop has too much respect for his characters to reduce them to picaresque caricatures of eerie and vain. Too often, the southern gothic aesthetic serves to overshadow unpleasant social oppression, softening racism through its surreal lens. In Brittle Innings, Bishop’s people are real and genuine in their flaws, products of their time, active players in a backwards era. This is an era of state-sponsored racism, when the law guarantees White advantage, even in baseball, and Bishop won’t let us forget it. “…Federal law forbids inducting Negroes in greater number than they appear in the general population” [Ch. 16], he reminds us.

But that doesn’t mean Bishop condemns his characters to the evil versus oppressed charade. Every character achieves complexity; no one is easily defined. Social roles are fragile, dangerous. Bishop shows us the cracks in this society. The tension so brittle it could snap at any moment.

Yet Bishop brings to life these heavy characters with crisp, light, unforgettable details: “Her voice was like Coca-Cola: sweet and fizzy, with a sting” (Ch. 1) and “Sometimes you could hear pocket change in his chuckles” (Ch. 40). Danny’s psychologically-inflicted muteness compliments and frustrates his rowdy teammates: “Silence seemed easier sometimes, nobler others, and sometimes just happily worrisome for the persnickety folks who wanted either answers or explanations out of me” (Ch. 39).

For the giant Hank “Jumbo” Clerval, his eloquence speaks volumes about his personality:

No longer do I blaze like a furnace. I don’t need women to fuel me. Thus, my capacities for a higher passion channel into three sustaining reservoirs: atonement, human companionship, and baseball. (Ch. 36)

We get the immediate sense that Hank is not your typical athlete. And when he later says, “Fuck you sempiternally,” (Ch. 57) you have to wonder…

Of course, by that time, you already know the thing you can’t know right now.

I have little regard for spoiler alerts. “The Big Reveal” rarely has anything to do with the salient experience of any novel, but this is one time when I will bite my tongue. It’s the axis of the tale, though not the tale itself, and, really, the subject itself isn’t nearly as interesting as how Bishop plays with it. You’ll know before you know, and Bishop handles this feature beautifully.

But it’s not all perfect. Bishop relies too heavily on phonetic spelling in this heavily accented, racially-split, southern culture. Offensive in some ways, tiresome in others, a few well-placed words of slang, or an occasional dropped consonant would better encourage the reader to pick up southern speech patterns. Bishop, a White author, doesn’t shy from race— even his protagonist in his acclaimed No Enemy but Time (1982) is Black, for whom he writes in first-person, though in a considerably more generic fashion for that character. In Brittle Innings, the voicing is an unintended offense, an overt attempt at realism, but Bishop’s overall respect for his marginalized characters is apparent. Still, we should add this one to the White authors writing non-White culture controversy pile.

BrittleInnings3Fortunately, the exaggerated voicing doesn’t distract from the overall delicacy of the tale. In magical realism, writers don’t build worlds, they build atmosphere, and Bishop’s southern gothic-lite atmosphere swelters and lulls to southern perfection. “You could smell the DDT on the cotton plants across the road, and the used-washcloth odor of the linens in Gladiola Delight” (39). And just like those honey-covered afternoons, the entire narrative drips with sticky lethargy. And sometimes, it’s hard to put the cap back on.

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21 thoughts on “Brittle Innings (1994) by Michael Bishop

  1. Jesse says:

    I don’t recall where at the moment, but I’ve seen on more than one occasion
    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


    mentioned in the same breath as Brittle Innings. Is there a connection?

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yes, but I don’t think Bishop wants you to know that yet. The cover of the Italian edition completely gives it away, though. (I covered part of your comment just because I’m spoiler police today.)

      It’s pretty cool how Bishop plays with this, not as a plot point, but just how he pays heed to the style and material. Elizabeth Hand described it as a book about outsiders, although I think it’s more about people with

      daddy issues
      .

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  2. I’ve been wondering when your next review would come out, and then you hit us with another great one. Love the review, and you totally sold me on Brittle Innings.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I thought I’d give people a break from me after the whole BSFA blast. Plus, I have a couple of bad reviews I’m putting off posting. I keep thinking I can sneak those in when nobody’s looking.

      I think you’ll love this novel, especially since you’re a baseball fan. My two years of bribed participation as short stop in Little League softball helped me with the jargon, although it’s really not necessary. Lots of baseball scenes, but they don’t require understanding. Just like the physics jargon in Hard SF novels!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. thebookgator says:

    Love the quotes about Coca-Cola and coin voices. Still, put me in the category of people that find phonetic spelling/dialect spelling annoying.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Bishop is a really beautiful writer. Deft with description. I do hate it when authors go overboard phonetically to remind us of accents, though. Just have them say “fixin'” once and I’ll take it from there.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Joseph Nebus says:

    I tend to resist phonetic spelling and dialect, although there are a surprising number of exceptions. I haven’t ever figured out the pattern of these exceptions, though, and why some work while most don’t.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think rather than using a bunch of apostrophes to signal a bunch of dropped consonants, or spelling out drawn out vowel sounds, we just need a few hints of idiosyncratic vocabulary. “Fixin'”, “yonder,” and “Missus” helps.

      I live in Texas. Yonder is over there. It’s always over there. And people are always fixin’ to go there. (Not really. Most of us don’t talk this way. I think G. W. Bush’s accent is fake.)

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      • Jesse says:

        Literature is language, and sometimes that language can be used phonetically to reflect colloquialisms with success. I dare anyone to read “The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson and come back with the statement that the story is less than what it could be because of phonetics. Wilson’s usage of language truly feels organic, and as such I would argue that the story gains mountains for it. That being said, there are some authors whose usage of apostrophes, literal homophones, etc. does stick out like a sore thumb, and as a result detract from the proceedings. It lacks that innate feel to story. With science fiction, we even have a different angle to look at: visions of how language might evolve in the future, one way being pronunciation, the only way to represent this, phonetics. What I’m fixin’ to say is, everything must be taken in context of the story. 🙂

        One last note that I would add is, for as ridiculous years of spelling classes are to teach us our language in a different form, think of it from another point of view: in some languages, like Polish, the written form matches the spoken form 97% of the time. In other words, you don’t have the same options when writing stories to present language in a different form other than “normal”. English is all the richer for having the phonetic option. And let’s face it, for as much as we read, it’s nice to have a little break from the norm every once and a while. (If you really want to exercise your brain/torture yourself, try Iain Banks’ Feersum Endjinn.)

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        • Feersum Endjinn is a great suggestion for use of phonetics in a sf novel, to which I’ll add Riddley Walker. One of the best hardest books to read, due to its post-apocalyptic argot:

          “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”

          Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I’m probably not being direct enough. My main gripe with phonetic spelling is the whole “getting all racist with it.” I don’t think Bishop is racist, not at all, but phonetic spelling imposed heavily on one group of speakers by writers of the dominant culture comes off as racist. It’s a hurtful way of saying “These characters don’t really speak English.” It’s unnecessary. It’s distracting when it’s overdone or applied unevenly, which it is in this novel. There’s this young Black boy in the story whose dialogue is so chopped up, it takes work to decipher Bishop’s spellings. It detracts from the story and I felt sorry for the poor kid. Bishop applies this technique to many characters of both races, but the White characters don’t get it nearly so bad.

          At the time, I think Bishop was aiming for realism with diverse characters*– a practice that was considered honorable and progressive, but the dominant White SF culture was still making the rules back then, so that was acceptable. We are learning now that this is not acceptable from vocal PoC quarters. Benjanun Sriduangkaew would call this “fucking racist.”

          But this is a new development, at least so far that White authors are starting to listen to these complaints. Judging from his attention to race in his fiction, I would bet money that Bishop would not practice this technique so heavily today.

          *I also think Bishop played this technique so heavily because he was putting his voicing skills on display, what with the you-know-what-spoiler-spoiler-ahem.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Liked those two sentences, the chuckle with change, etc. And it sounds like this is a good writer. But baseball. I don’t know if I can get past the baseball as main subject. I played t-ball, and it can be fun to play, but I’ve always found it to be a boring sport to watch/read about. But hey, sports of that sort have never done much for me.

    How did this book make it onto your reading list (our of curiosity, not because I think everyone should be allergic to baseball in books)?

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It was a ’95 Hugo nominee and I’m reading all of the Hugo ‘5s this season. Plus, I read Bishop’s No Enemy but Time for @SFRuminations Bishop series last year and really enjoyed it.

      As for the baseball, baseball bores the hell out of me, but it feels more like a setting component in this novel. I don’t like snow, either, but I enjoyed Left Hand of Darkness. So, I recommend this book even for the baseball-phobes.

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  6. Widdershins says:

    ‘sempiternally’ – had to look that one up … must find a way to use it in regular conversation! 🙂

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  7. […] Brittle Innings (1994) by Michael Bishop– A WWII-era, southern gothic-lite tale about baseball and monsters. Literary in feel, readers not acquainted with baseball or monsters will feel right at home with Bishop’s focus on characterization, voicing, and social complexities. And Bishop really shows off his chops when he pays tribute to his inspiration. Despite my discomfort with some of the overdone character voicing, I loved this novel. […]

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  8. […] Brittle Innings is a rich, full-bodied tale about humanity and its monsters in the pre-Civil Rights era South, and involves brilliant literary interplay. It’s gorgeous. Towing Jehovah is an intelligent, biting, religious satire that offends everybody, even the intended audience. Beggars and Choosers is brimful of imaginative near-future technology with (often over-involved) philosophical ponderings, and its problematic nature makes analysis even more worthwhile. Bujold’s Mirror Dance is the “Give your sociopathic clone son a starship” edition of the “Save-yo-fetuses” series, which always puts my deeply internalized pro-choice sensibilities on edge, not to mention the elevation of uberwealthy characters undermines difficult moral quandaries by making them easy, fun to read, and not really a big deal. And Mother of Storms is a kitchen sink filler-thriller about superficial character cliches surviving a global weather disaster. […]

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