Contra Costa Times Review
Contra Costa Times Book Review: The Fade-away

By Pat Craig, September 30, 2007

The opening paragraph of George Jansen's novel has more hooks than a fisherman's tackle box.

It also establishes Jansen's reason for writing the book in the first place -- he was captivated by the notion of the mythic figure, the larger-than-life hero, as envisioned by author/philosopher Joseph Campbell. It was only later that he filled in the details, like the fact that the book was about baseball, and his Port Newton location was a fictionalized version of Port Costa.

"I wanted to write something mythic, and the idea of fishing a hero/god out of the Carquinez Strait was really the only part of the idea I had," says Jansen, after polishing off a plate of pot roast in Bertola's, a century-old Italian restaurant in Martinez. "Then it sat in a drawer for about 10 years."

His novel, "The Fade-away," did not spring quickly from his Campbell-inspired imagination. The author, a Bay Area native currently living in Hayward, took a long time figuring out how and where he would place this mythic god -- who, it turned out, was an Injun, as they used to say in Port Newton during those less politically correct times.

"I finally figured out the baseball part; but this isn't a baseball book. It's just about baseball, sort of," says Jansen.

Baseball is both essential and incidental to the story, which is really a slice of historical California unfolding in a fictional 1900 town surrounded by real places such as Martinez, Benicia and Crockett, and served by railroads coming in from Oakland and the ferry boats that carry the trains across the Carquinez.

Day-to-day life

Jack Dobbs, a Nevada-born giant, came to Port Newton on the ferry, at least most of the way, from Benicia. Technically, he was knocked unconscious and tossed off the boat into the water, where he was rescued by some men from the Port Newton Athletic Club and laid out on the bar at the Railroad Exchange to dry out.

Only a little later does he become heroic. Turns out the hulking Washoe Indian was a pitcher, blackballed from the majors for cheating, but just the thing the Port Newton nine needed to come out of a decades-long slump and launch a winning record for the new century.

Readers land in Port Newton the same time as Dobbs. And, as the big lefty sputters and groans on the bar at the Railroad Exchange, Jansen begins to unfolds a colorful and detailed portrait of his fictional town and its people, using vintage newspapers and the help of Contra Costa historian Nilda Rego for historical accuracy, both in the details and the way the story sounds.

The story is set between early spring, the start of the baseball season, and the three-day Independence Day blowout, when the championship will be decided. But while faithful accounts of the games are included in the book, via stories in the Port Newton News, the tale is more of day-to-day life in the small city. Observations on the passing scene are made by various residents of the town, ranging from Port Newton's doctor to a high school girl, which gives the novel a charmingly comprehensive feel for life as it turned toward the 20th century. Augmenting that are the frequently included "Local Brevities," small paragraphs from the Port Newton News, reporting happenings from the rousting of hoboes in Martinez to the arrival of the new summer suits from McEwen Clothing Emporium at Railroad Avenue and Main Street.

To get the sense of reality in his story, Jansen took information from firsthand accounts of the era, and blended stories to create the lives of his characters and the way things were in Port Newton during the spring and summer of 1900. Speaking patterns There was plenty of baseball at the time, with strong local rivalries, and businesses would hire ringers simply to make the local team stronger. There was a traveling Paiute team that played in San Francisco, just as there were women whose sweethearts were killed in the war, and mothers and daughters who didn't get along.

"It's a part of every small town," Jansen says, "It's what we think it was like."

To help set the mood of the early 20th century, he tried to adapt the speaking pattern of the time, but as he wrote, people who read his drafts complained that the sound was stiff and stilted. "I eventually ended up toning it down so it would sound to contemporary people like it probably did at the time," he says. "What I really wanted to do was make sure I didn't make any huge factual mistakes on things like the electricity that came to town around that time."

"The Fade-away" is Jansen's second novel. The first was about the outlaw Jesse James. Outside of his literary career, Jansen does technical writing. "My objective has been to make enough money to continue writing and do that without having to work outside home," he says. "So far, I've been able to do that."

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