Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baseball & Bullets: The Ringer by Jenny Shank

The crack of a baseball ringing off a bat and the crack of a bullet leaving a gun intersect in Jenny Shank's debut novel The Ringer, one of the best overlooked books of 2011.  Released in March by The Permanent Press, The Ringer is like that talented rookie who jogged onto the field during spring training but, despite impressive batting and fielding skills, never caught fire with readers who were distracted by bigger, flashier new releases.

Well, here's one fan who's still standing in the bleachers, waving a big foam hand and yelling, "Go, Ringer, go!"  Written with warmth and depth and plotted with the precision of a stopwatch's gears, The Ringer deserves a wide audience.  If your "October dreams" leading up to the World Series include immersing yourself in good baseball fiction, I'd suggest pairing The Ringer with the season's MVP of breakthrough fiction, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  I read both novels side-by-side and let me tell you, while I tremendously enjoyed Harbach's John Irving-esque debut about a small Wisconsin college's baseball team, Shank's story of a Denver cop coaching a Little League team was just as good.

As The Ringer opens, we meet tough, gruff Ed O'Fallon as he's surrounded by his daughter's T-ball team, the Purple Unicorns.  He's been busted down to coaching the littlest of leagues by his wife Claire who says his temper was starting to spiral out of control when he coached their two older sons E. J. and Jesse in Denver's competitive Police Athletic League.
Ed stood on home plate, holding his clipboard, and surveyed his team: cleatless, capless, untutored six-year-olds, his girl Polly among them, their clothes the colors of an array of ice cream....Ed cleared his throat. "Hello, Unicorns," he heard himself say. He'd debated about what to call them. He'd always addressed his sons' teams as "Men," but "Women" didn't seem right, not for six-year-olds, "Ladies" sounded like a vaguely creepy term for a thirty-seven-year-old man to use with little girls, and "Girls" wouldn't have the appropriate, spirit-bolstering effect he was looking for. So he settled on calling them Unicorns. "We need to work hard today, Unicorns, because our first game is in two weeks." He looked down at his clipboard, and then added, "It's against the Southeast Denver Baby Kittens."

It's a charming way to open a novel--thrusting a burly cop into the midst of giggling six-year-old girls--and it immediately gives us a warm-fuzzy for Ed.  Which is a good thing because eight pages later he shoots and kills a man during a SWAT team raid on a supposed drug flophouse.  Ed later learns that the address on the warrant was wrong and that he killed an innocent man named Salvador Santillano.  This is the linchpin moment of The Ringer, the stone thrown into the pond with ripples shimmering across every page of the book.

Here's where Shank gets clever (but not precociously so) with her plot.  The son of the man Ed kills is also a talented pitcher for another Little League team and the two families are about to clash in the middle of what becomes a race-relations scandal in Denver.  The Ringer is based on a real-life incident, a similar shooting in 1999 which ripped the city apart.  Shank took that shooting, added the drama of baseball, and wrote a novel that works on all levels.

The chapters alternate between Ed's life after the shooting and the story of Santillano's wife, Patricia Maestas.  As Ed's partner tells him, "When you kill a man, his life and yours are intertwined until you die"--haunting, chilling words which form the foundation of The Ringer.  Just as the cop must deal with the psychological effects of killing another man, so does the victim's widow have to pick up the pieces of her broken domestic life and carry on bravely for her two children--young Mia and her older son Ray who is a wizard on the pitching mound.  Meanwhile, everyone has to cope with the incident which has become front-page news:
The newspapers and TV anchors were calling what happened..."The Santillano Shooting." Ray's teachers and many of the kids surely had found out about what happened to Salvador. Neighbor told neighbor until everyone knew, and whenever Patricia left the house, she felt like she and her kids were wearing neon signs that flashed: "Please, stare at and whisper about us!  We've had a tragedy!"

Ed buries himself into coaching the Purple Unicorns and, later, supporting his sons' team as it goes to the state championship.  Patricia salves her grief by weighing her options for a lawsuit against the city and by getting involved in a grassroots organization which protests what it calls the police brutality of no-knock warrants.  She also attends her son's Little League team as it heads for the championship tournament.  Through a series of plausible circumstances, neither Ed nor Patricia meet each other until one of their sons is standing on the pitching mound and the other in the batter's box.

You can see where the drama of the book is headed, can't you?  The Ringer runs on parallel tracks for most of its pages, but gradually we know those lines will converge.  The individual stories of Ed and Patricia are interesting enough in and of themselves, but Shank keeps the tension of their ultimate, inevitable confrontation humming in the background the entire time.  When the two families do eventually meet, The Ringer delivers the made-for-the-movies goods in compelling, knotty ways.  Readers will be able to predict some of the plot twists, but others will come as a surprise.

The Ringer could have been a schizophrenic book--imbalanced between a police procedural and a heartwarming Bad News Bears tale.  But to her credit, Shank blends the two halves of the book nicely, bringing us fully into the lives of these families.  The SWAT team shooting may have torn their lives apart, but it's baseball which eventually heals them.


  1. I think I just decided which two books to buy my father for Christmas this year. Thanks, David!

  2. Picked this up at the bookfest. Will definitely read before year's end!