This weekend I finished reading Last of the Third by John Lindholm. I hadn’t heard of the book prior to coming across it, but the summary sounded fascinating — and, of course, it’s about baseball — so I figured I’d give it a shot.
The novel’s main character, twenty-two-year-old Shawn McMaster, used to play baseball in his home town of Quail, Pennsylvania as their star left fielder. Shawn was a brilliant fielder, but really just an average hitter, and his performance at the plate caused him no small amount of anxiety. As the story opens, however, the reader quickly realizes that Shawn is in hiding, and we further learn that he hasn’t been home, nor played baseball, in four years. Shawn’s reason for going into hiding remains a mystery for much of the book, as Lindholm reveals that detail of the story inch-by-excruciating-inch over the course of the novel.
One night, Shawn’s whereabouts happen to get discovered by Larry Schneider, better known in Quail as Larry Last, the town oddball and best friend to Shawn’s grandfather, DJ McMaster. Larry relays the details of Shawn’s location to Shawn’s parents, and Shawn’s mother, Greta, convinces her son to return home at last.
Things are awkward, of course. While things in Quail don’t seem to have changed on the surface, Shawn soon realizes that his disappearance has had a profound impact on his parents, his friends, and his girlfriend, CeCe. He continues to struggle with his own self-deprecation, however, and it’s not until his father’s sudden, unexpected death that Shawn finally pulls his head out of his self-loathing and realizes that it’s time to take some responsibility for himself and those he cares about.
Meanwhile, the McMaster property in Quail is in trouble. Larry Last, who was with DJ McMaster in his last moments alive, has a couple of clues on how to save the property, but he is struggling to make sense of them. Lindholm does a fantastic job of dropping enough hints to keep the reader puzzling over the mystery, but not so many as to make it easily solvable. When the solution finally presented itself, I had to tip my hat to the author for his cleverness.
The plot does not follow a linear timeline, but rather jumps back and forth between the novel’s present events and flashing back to those events that brought the characters to where they now stood. I like the general structure of utilizing flashbacks in a story like this, though at times I found myself wishing it didn’t happen quite as often in this book. Most of the chapters are short, and most chapters take place in a different point in time, and so I found myself constantly having to refer back to the dates at the start of each chapter in order to orient myself. I certainly wouldn’t change the structure so much as just combine some of the shorter chapters into longer ones.
I have to confess, there were several instances while reading when I grew quite irritated with both Shawn McMaster and with his girlfriend CeCe. Then it occurred to me, about halfway through the novel, that my irritation with these two characters mirrored my irritation with the college-aged folk whom I deal with on a regular basis. That being said, I came to realize that Lindholm’s character development with regards to these two was actually spot on, and that my frustrations were not due to bad writing, but to really good character portrayal. I’m sure that sounds like a rather convoluted reaction, and it probably is. But it makes sense to my own mind, anyways.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. It is nice, for a change, to have an outfielder be the star of the baseball team, rather than a pitcher or a shortstop or the team’s slugger. It’s definitely a coming-of-age story, though it’s one that happens in an older age group than usually seen in literature. Last of the Third takes the familiarity of baseball, small towns, and pie, and adds a couple of interesting twists to make it unique.
When I first started reading this poem by Edgar Guest, the first stanza gave me the impression that this would be about a man who used baseball as an analogy through which to teach his children important lessons about life. Boy, was I wrong. As I read on, I found myself smiling a bit, and even had to chuckle by the end.
The smell of arnica is strong,
And mother’s time is spent
In rubbing father’s arms and back
With burning liniment.
The house is like a druggist’s shop;
Strong odors fill the hall,
And day and night we hear him groan,
Since father played baseball.
He’s forty past, but he declared
That he was young as ever;
And in his youth, he said, he was
A baseball player clever.
So when the business men arranged
A game, they came to call
On dad and asked him if he thought
That he could play baseball.
“I haven’t played in fifteen years,
Said father, “but I know
That I can stop the grounders hot,
And I can make the throw.
I used to play a corking game;
The curves, I know them all;
And you can count on me, you bet,
To join your game of ball.”
On Saturday the game was played,
And all of us were there;
Dad borrowed an old uniform,
That Casey used to wear.
He paid three dollars for a glove,
Wore spikes to save a fall
He had the make-up on all right,
When father played baseball.
At second base they stationed him;
A liner came his way;
Dad tried to stop it with his knee,
And missed a double play.
He threw into the bleachers twice,
He let a pop fly fall;
Oh, we were all ashamed of him,
When father played baseball.
He tried to run, but tripped and fell,
He tried to take a throw;
It put three fingers out of joint,
And father let it go.
He stopped a grounder with his face;
Was spiked, nor was that all;
It looked to us like suicide,
When father played baseball.
At last he limped away, and now
He suffers in disgrace;
His arms are bathed in liniment;
Court plaster hides his face.
He says his back is breaking, and
His legs won’t move at all;
It made a wreck of father when
He tried to play baseball.
The smell of arnica abounds;
He hobbles with a cane;
A row of blisters mar his hands;
He is in constant pain.
But lame and weak as father is,
He swears he’ll lick us all
If we dare even speak about
The day he played baseball.
Sometimes a strikeout means that the slugger’s girlfriend just ran off with the UPS driver. Sometimes a muffed ground ball means that the shortstop’s baby daughter has a pain in her head that won’t go away. And handicapping is for amateur golfers, not ballplayers. Pitchers don’t ease off on the cleanup hitter because of the lumps just discovered in his wife’s breast. Baseball is not life. It is a fiction, a metaphor. And a ballplayer is a man who agrees to uphold that metaphor as though lives were at stake.
Perhaps they are. I cherish a theory I once heard propounded by G.Q. Durham that professional baseball is inherently antiwar. The most overlooked cause of war, his theory runs, is that it’s so damned interesting. It takes hard effort, skill, love and a little luck to make times of peace consistently interesting. About all it takes to make war interesting is a life. The appeal of trying to kill others without being killed yourself, according to Gale, is that it brings suspense, terror, honor, disgrace, rage, tragedy, treachery and occasionally even heroism within range of guys who, in times of peace, might lead lives of unmitigated blandness. But baseball, he says, is one activity that is able to generate suspense and excitement on a national scale, just like war. And baseball can only be played in peace. Hence G.Q.’s thesis that pro ball-players—little as some of them may want to hear it—are basically just a bunch of unusually well-coordinated guys working hard and artfully to prevent wars, by making peace more interesting.
~David James Duncan
Here’s a poem written by John Updike, published in his Collected Poems 1953-1993. I love the collision of East and West in this piece.
Distance brings proportion. From here
the populated tiers
as much as players seem part of the show:
a constructed stage beast, three folds of Dante’s rose,
or a Chinese military hat
cunningly chased with bodies.
“Falling from his chariot, a drunk man is unhurt
because his soul is intact. Not knowing his fall,
he is unastonished, he is invulnerable.”
So, too, the “pure man”—“pure”
in the sense of undisturbed water.
“It is not necessary to seek out
a wasteland, swamp, or thicket.”
The opposing pitcher’s pertinent hesitations,
the sky, this meadow, Mantle’s thick baked neck,
the old men who in the changing rosters see
a personal mutability,
green slats, wet stone are all to me
as when an emperor commands
a performance with a gesture of his eyes.
“No king on his throne has the joy of the dead,”
the skull told Chuang-tzu.
The thought of death is peppermint to you
when games begin with patriotic song
and a democratic sun beats broadly down.
The Inner Journey seems unjudgeably long
when small boys purchase cups of ice
and, distant as a paradise,
experts, passionate and deft,
hold motionless while Berra flies to left.
Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms … the game of ball is glorious.