My father plays baseball. This was never really a cause for terror until a gorilla-sized powerhouse of a batter hit one of his pitches with home-run caliber strength. It should have gone over the fence. Instead it went straight into my father’s face, crushing his cheekbone into irreparable shards and rendering him a bruised, swollen-faced version of himself that I was convinced looked like Russell Crowe.
There is a happy end to this story. He now has a metal plate in his face that allows him to sense when tornadoes are nearby. I was also able to use his x-rays to get some extra credit in high school anatomy. And he still plays baseball, even though mom has forbidden him from pitching ‘til death do they part (but he still does it when she’s not looking).
The point of all this is that, when I read the back cover of Beanball, I knew that this novel had a story I could relate to.
Beanball by Gene Fehler is a novel-in-verse, which means that it’s a story made up of poems, which means that you can finish it in one-eighth the time it would take you to read a regular novel because poems do not take up that much page space. Don’t let a sissy word like “poem” keep you from reading it, though. Beanball is not a sissy poetry book. It lets you know because there’s a big ol’ splatter of blood on the front cover.
This blood belongs to Luke “Wizard” Wallace, a superstar player for the Oak Grove High School baseball team. Everyone who has seen him play, fans and opponents alike, realizes that he’s a pro player in the making. Until one fatefully powerful pitch shatters his face.
Beanball is a painful story. It’s the story of a teen on a path to greatness who finds it absolutely derailed. It is more than the story of Luke, however; it is also the story of the community that surrounds him. This book reads less like a book of poetry, more like a poem-play hybrid, as each poem tells the story from a different character’s perspective. Readers hear not only from Luke, but from his best friend, his coach, the coach of the opposing team, the pitcher who threw the tragic pitch, his fellow schoolmates, and even seemingly unconnected spectators in the crowd, such as that old guy who shows up to every high school game not because he has a grandkid playing but because he just loves the sport. You probably know one, or at least know of one. This large and varied cast is one of the things that makes Beanball such a great story. It jerks readers’ emotions around. Our stomachs leap to our throats when Luke is actually hit (Fehler’s descriptions, while not gory, are quite visceral). We cry for him (or at least get a strong sinking feeling) when we learn that he might lose sight in one eye. We want to rail against the classmates who are sympathetic at first, but then lose interest when they simply get bored with his plight. But we also want to cheer, because though Luke’s suffering brings out the worst in some of the characters, it also brings out the best in others—but not in a saccharine, Hallmark-y way. I can see this story happening in real life, exactly as it’s portrayed in the novel.
Another good thing about this novel is that, though it is a novel in poems, you don’t need to know Special Poem Language to be able to make sense of it. Each poem reads like a little nugget of prose simply given a funny format, which renders it quite easy to read.
I’m not an avid reader of sports books. Beanball, however, I enjoyed immensely, and would recommend to anyone interested in sports, drama, or simply a moving, short read.