Michael Bishop's novel Brittle Innings (Fairwood Press, 1994) is about a grade C minor league baseball team in South Georgia during the World War II years of the 1940s. It's narrator and main character is Daniel Boles, an 18-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma who’s fast on his feet and a good hitter. He's got major league prospects, and in the back of his mind he's hoping that the major-league might lie in his future. Bishop has a real knack for characterization, and even the minor characters in this novel stand out as individuals. Daniel describes how he's recruited to the Highbridge Hellbenders by the team owner and how he takes the train to South Georgia and on the way is sodomized by a man who claims to his known his father in the Aleutians of Alaska. The trauma of this attack causes him to lose his voice and through much of the novel he can't talk at all.
Bishop knows baseball: he describes the plays and the strategies and the attitudes of players with skill. But this isn't just a baseball novel. Daniel Boles becomes roommates and then friends with the team’s first baseman, Henry Clerval. He's an extraordinarily tall and bulky man whose body parts don't seem to fit together in a natural way. He's got scars on his face. He speaks in an overly articulate and somewhat archaic language that reminds one more of early 19th century Britain than mid-20th century small-town America. Unlike most of the players on the team, who have to share rooms, Clerval has his own room, and only out of kindness towards the new recruit does he agree to become Daniel’s roommate.
Bishop set a big challenge for himself in this novel. He's mostly a writer of science fiction, and baseball is fairly different from science fiction. But there's a connection here because not only is this a baseball novel but it is also a sequel to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. How does Bishop connect these two threads? The answer involves journals and letters that Daniel discovers in his roommate's belongings. I won't say more because I don't want to give too much away. The novel has a number of concerns. Obviously baseball is a metaphor for the Great American dream. Friendship, fathers and sons, romance, despair, race, and class all to one extent or another play a role in the narrative.
Other sequels have been written to Mary Shelley's famous novel. Probably none of them is a baseball novel. The combination of Frankenstein and baseball might suggest that there is an emphasis in Brittle Innings on grotesque comedy or burlesque satire or whatever but that’s not the case.
Bishop’s novel is highly readable, well-written, always interesting and entertaining. I was sorry when it ended. Although Bishop sets up a potential sequel, I suspect we’re not going to see one. And that's all for the good. Sequels rarely work, and it's difficult to imagine where the narrative could go from the conclusion of this novel. But if anyone is suited to write a sequel, Bishop is the one.