Saturday, October 19, 2013

Baseball, Booze, and Three-Legged Dogs: Metaphor and Meaning in High and Inside by Russell Rowland

High and Inside
By Russell Rowland
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds

It is always a bad idea to get soppy and sentimental about baseball.  You can do it, of course.  Some people live their lives that way.  But it’s not productive, and it’s not healthy, and I am saying this as a former Dr. Pepper Junior Texas Ranger.  It is perfectly okay to remember your childhood, and sitting in the bleachers, and watching Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew terrorize Rangers pitchers.  But when you do that, you have to remember the salient facts, such as the one about the old Arlington Stadium having those uncomfortable sheet-metal benches, and how, during day games in the broiling Texas sun, the outfield seats would transform into the world’s largest open-air pit barbecue.  Sometimes the past is just the past.

The picture above is one of several iconic images of the destruction of old Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which was destroyed to build a massive public housing complex after the Dodgers split for sunny Southern California.  I mention this for two reasons.  One is about the danger of getting sloppily sentimental about baseball teams that leave and baseball stadiums that are going to get destroyed eventually, and the other reason is that I couldn’t stop thinking of the image of the wrecking ball made up to look like a baseball while reading High and Inside by Russell Rowland.

High and Inside is neither sloppy or sentimental about baseball, which is to its credit.  The first-person narrator is Pete Hurley, a relief pitcher for the 2004 world champion Boston Red Sox, who decamps for a trailer in the vast echoing outskirts of Bozeman, Montana following what I am going to call a series of personal setbacks.  In both the narrative and the backstory, Rowland portrays Pete as a human wrecking ball, swinging this way and that, and damaging nearly everyone he comes into contact with.  Pete’s actions and reactions are fueled by alcohol and pain rather than physics, but the effect for those around him is much the same.  Almost none of the supporting characters come away unscathed by Pete’s actions—even his loving and devoted dog is missing a leg as a result of one of Pete’s benders.

Rowland writes from Pete’s perspective, and does so with clarity and grace.  He does three things that are more difficult than you might think, and does them effortlessly.  First, he takes a character that is depressed and makes him likable, and relatable.  Depression is painful, for the depressive and others around them, and it’s not always pretty, but the real problem for the writer is that depression is just so horribly consistent.  When you’re depressed, you tend to stay depressed, and having a one-note sad-sack narrator is not always compatible with quality fiction, let’s say.  And long-term depression erodes compassion, so it’s harder to stay with a character who is down all the time.  Part of what Rowland does here is to make Pete’s voice engaging, but the other thing he does is to have Pete building a house, which is something hopeful, and (quite literally) constructive.  It doesn’t do much to keep him out of trouble, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The second thing Rowland does well is to manage the long stretches of loneliness and isolation that Pete undergoes.  Rowland puts Pete alone, in a trailer, in Big Sky country, and periodically lets him stew.  This can be enervating for readers, not to mention claustrophobic, but Rowland uses flashbacks and surprise visits and other methods to break up the inaction.  Even the simple expedient of giving Pete a dog works wonders, not only in giving him something to do but giving him someone to care about.  The supporting characters, when they appear, have a depth and integrity that punctuates the narrative nicely.

The third thing that Rowland does well is to give the reader a sense of place.  Pete is a New England transplant, drawn to Montana by the promise of a peaceful retirement in an unspoiled wilderness.  He finds out that the greater Bozeman area isn’t quite as unspoiled as all that, and that at least some of the locals are a bit resentful of high-hat Easterners wandering in to town and setting themselves up in their own Walden Ponds to commune with nature.  Rowland doesn’t romanticize Montana anymore than he romanticizes baseball; his Bozeman comes complete with dive bars and audio stores and legal clinics.  But he captures local attitudes perfectly, as well as those romantic empty vistas that Pete happens to run across in the novel.

Being a conscientious reviewer, though, I have to take at least minor exception to a couple of small points and at least one large one.  I think that, perhaps, the tragedies that beset Pete Hurley and the people around him are perhaps laid on a little too thick—or that the reader is reminded of them perhaps a little too often.  (Pete ought to be able to go into some bar, somewhere, and not be reminded of the pitch that ended his baseball career every single time.)  I think that Rowland is a little too free with his metaphors; just because a character is emotionally crippled doesn’t mean that you have to give him a three-legged dog.

I have a larger problem with the ending, which is kind of pat and sort of rushed and more than a bit unsatisfying.  Worse than that, the ending feels unearned, especially when balanced against the suffering that Pete has experienced and precipitated.  Without giving anything away, I can say that I understand the philosophy of ending the book as Rowland did, but having the philosophical climax come from a character who plays no other part in the novel seems artificial and wrong.  As flawed as the ending is, though, it shows that Rowland grasps an even more important point: it is always a bad idea to get soppy and sentimental about depression and suffering.  You can do it, of course.  Some people live their lives that way.  But it’s not productive, and it’s not healthy.

Curtis Edmonds is a writer and critic living in central New Jersey.  His novel, Rain on Your Wedding Day, is available for sale at and other fine online shopping destinations.  You can follow him on Twitter at @Curtis_Edmonds.

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