Hardball Times Review
Steve Treder Book Review: The Fade-away

September 11, 2007

In the first decade of the new century, the United States finds itself embroiled in a bloody war against a stubborn insurgency, halfway around the globe. As the conflict drags out, year upon year, it stimulates intense and sometimes divisive political debate at home: Opponents of the war (particularly Democrats, since the military action was initiated by a Republican administration) consider it wasteful, jingoistic and imperialist, while defenders assert it as a proper and necessary American responsibility.

It's an uneasy era. Immigration is another hotly debated issue, as the ethnic makeup of the country is being transformed, and racial and cultural tensions are high. Technological innovation rushes forward, heedless to the objections of any who question its efficacy. Entrepreneurial opportunity swirls about, flashing promises of easy money, enriching a few but frustrating most.

Baseball, ever-popular, holds the center of this political, social and economic maelstrom, intensely distilling its best and worst: traditional standards of virtue and sportsmanship grappling with temptationsof win-at-any-cost deviousness.

Such is the scene depicted in George Jansen's new novel, The Fade-away, set in the year 1900. The more things change, the morethey stay the same, as they say.

Familiar modernity --or, perhaps, universal eternity-- revealed in the past is just one of many themes that Jansen elegantly weaves into this exceptionally strong historical novel. It's a romantic comedy with dark undertones, or perhaps a tragedy presented with warmth and humor: either way, the balance is deftly struck. Serious issues of greed, cruelty, and violence, indeed good and evil and right and wrong, are dealt with unflinchingly, yet never pedantically, in this gracious and charming 231-page yarn about baseball, America, yearning and coping.

Timeless truths not withstanding, the best historical fiction unerringly places itself in a very specific time and place. Jansen's Port Newton, Calif., is a fictitious town, but it's inspired by the actual hamlet of Port Costa, residing within a splendidly detailed San Francisco Bay Area at the turn of the 20th century: Martinez, Benicia, Concord, Oakland and San Francisco are all distinctly and colorfully rendered. The unique ethnic and cultural stew that was and is the Bay Area is appropriately spiced: Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, German-Americans, Chinese-Americans, African-Americans and so on, cheek-by-jowl in the oddly Californian brew of open-minded tolerance laced with racism, both subtle and blatant.

But The Fade-away is a novel, not a textbook of history or sociology. The 1900 Port Newton setting is merely the stage upon which the story's cast of characters comes to life. There is no dominant main actor; it's a true ensemble. Jansen revolves our perspective through four distinct voices, heard in present tense as well as in years-later recollection:

  • Sam "Doc" Fuller, the fortyish, world-weary town physician and president of the Port Newton Athletic Club, which sponsors the town's baseball team.
  • Sophie, his precocious and strong-willed 17-year-old daughter.
  • Cal Ewell, 20 or so, an earnest loafer, a college-dropout bartender who lives to play ball and longs for Sophie's affection.
  • Riley Towne, editor and publisher of the Port Newton News, chronicling the goings-on in florid, self-interested, boosterish puffery.

The fates of these four tightly intertwine with those of several others:

  • Foghorn Murphy, Sam's best friend, proprietor of the Railroad Exchange saloon, and manager of theball team.
  • Lily Newton, spirited and beautiful, unmarried in her mid-20s, manic-depressive, haunted by thememory, and the misdeeds, of her deceased father.
  • Long John Sheets, the town constable and hard-hitting first baseman, stressed by the rigors of his job and his unrequited love for Lily.
  • Jack 'Chief' Dobbs, a Washoe Indian, ace pitcher and ingratiating rogue, whose accidental arrival intown sets the rollicking plot in motion.

All of these characters, and more, are vividly animated, not a cardboard cutout among them. They're three-dimensional, attractive and flawed: We like them all while agonizing over their faults and failures. Mostly what we do is identify with them, and root for them. In their richness and vibrancy, the multiplicity of characters is comparable to those in the wonderful novels of Armistead Maupin.

Character-rich fiction is driven by the engine of dialogue, and Jansen demonstrates an expert ear for it, funny and true. On page 1 we're drawn right in, via this exchange between Doc and Foghorn:

"Me and Foghorn Murphy, the owner of the joint, sat at his favorite poker table playing five card stud and hashing over the town team's chances in the upcoming baseball season."

"We don't have a chance, Doc," Foghorn said, and Foghorn was the manager, no less. "I'd ask God to send us some pitching, but He's dead, I understand. Saw it in the papers down at the Beehive Cafá just this morning."

I tossed a dime in the pot and told him I'd seen the article myself.

"He's not dead, exactly. Put out to pasture is more like it. Outlived His usefulness, you might say."

"Dead," Foghorn muttered. "Happened somewhere in Germany, back in the last century."

The quickest wit is brandished by Dobbs, who's been everywhere and seen everything, and had anything but an easy life. His interactions with young Cal, in particular, crackle with smart-alecky fun. Dobbs tells Cal it's high time he lost his virginity, was 'made a man,' and Cal objects:

"How do you know I'm not a man already? There's lots of girls in Port Newton. How do you know I haven't become a man with one of them?"

"Don't make me laugh, kid."

Dobbs develops a sore pitching elbow, and implores Cal to keep it a secret:

"Don't tell Doc. And whatever you do, don't tell that sweetheart of yours."

"I don't have a sweetheart."

"Well, don't tell her, anyway."

And here's how Cal describes Dobbs's needling of Foghorn Murphy:

The Chief was supposed to be a bartender, just like me, but he hardly ever did any real work. Bringing in business was his job. Mostly he just glad-handed the customers and acted friendly. Sometimes he'd be dealer when the boys played cards but mostly he'd just lean on the bar, drink beer and be, well, the Chief.

"Dutchmen make the best ballplayers," he'd say, and Foghorn would fall for it.

"In my book it's the Irish," Foghorn would reply, him being Irish and all.

"One thing for sure about the Micks," the Chief would say, "the unsportsmanlike play is on them. Mobbing the umpires, starting fights, all that."

Foghorn would fall for that one, too. "That's prejudice, pure and simple." Then the Chief would dig him again.

"I'm not saying the Micks are naturally violent, but it can't be denied that they're natural drunks."

"And I don't suppose that the redskins ever touch a drop."

Alongside warm and funny moments, sad and ugly events unfold, as the plot strides rapidly toward its noisy climax. Here the voice of Sophie describes the action:

Then I caught a glimpse of the Indian, coming towards Long John from the opposite direction. He was surrounded by a pack of small boys, as always, and he waltzed along, eyes turned upwards intent on The Flying Fords, and I wondered if, despite being left-handed it still could have been him that beat her.

Then, Long John saw the Indian and stopped dead, not fifty feet away. The Indian, sensing danger in the intuitive way of the savage, perhaps, froze in his tracks and the two stood staring at each other, like duelists on the eve of mortal combat.

That big, oriental grin came over the Chief's face and, in a gesture whose meaning could not be mistaken, he took hold of his own tie, pulled the loose end of it up above his head, stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes, in the manner of a man being hung.

I fear something horrible is going to happen.

It's likely you've never heard of George Jansen. This is just his second novel, and it's published by a small house. You probably won't find a big stack of copies at your local Barnes & Noble. You'll probably have to seek this one out online.

Take my advice: Do so. Your effort will be more than amply rewarded. This is a flawless book, every bit as richly wrought as such classics of the genre as Eric Rolfe Greenberg's The Celebrant, yet a quicker, funnier read than that book. The Fade-away is something very special.

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