A hundred and fifty years ago, Walt Whitman thrust himself into the literary scene, challenging us to distill the vitality within us, the truly American. Since then, we as a people (and particularly our high school English teachers) have sought the Great American novel. Moby Dick? Too ponderous. Gatsby? Too shiny. Grapes of Wrath? Too many tortoises.
But it turns out that our quest is in vain, simply because it’s already completed. We have the text that encapsulates our youth, our dynamism, our hope. We have Matt Christopher’s The Kid Who Only Hit Homers.
In Sylvester Coddmyer III, the titular hero, we have a mixture of Ragged Dick and Nicholas Nickleby, a boy with humility and heart, who tackles his difficulties with pluck and moxie. Unlike the modern brooding hero, Sylvester is a boy of action rather than words. He’s a self-made kid, one who gets out of bed each morning pulling handfuls of bootstrap. He doesn’t make excuses; he only hits home runs.
But by no means is Sylvester a flat character. He’s an everyman; to describe him too precisely would rob the young reader an opportunity to find common ground with the character, just as every teenage girl in 2009 imagined herself as Bella. No, Sylvester has weaknesses, and ones we can all understand. He likes pie too much, for example. Christopher gives a subtle nod to The Natural by having Christopher overeat pies and miss a game. We’ve all been there!
Meanwhile, the spectral force behind the novel is the mysterious Mr. Baruth. “Who is the mysterious Mr. Baruth?” it says on the cover of the book, and indeed, the tension of this unresolved, mysterious mystery compels the reader onward. Other questions follow: why would Mr. Baruth bestow incomparable greatness upon a kid after seeing him play once? Why does he spend his free time attending rural middle school baseball games? Is he a thinly veiled metaphor for Christianity? Christopher is too subtle an author to answer these questions directly, and instead prods the reader to look into his own heart.
Christopher treats these topics with a light touch, with a prose style that seems overly simplistic at first, but takes on meaning over time. If anything he simply out-Hemingways Hemingway, eschewing not only adjectives and verbs but the majority of clauses as well. The simple sentences are direct, authoritative. By stripping the story of extraneous detail and characters, Christopher opts for the sort of ultra-minimalism of a Beckett play.
Strip it all away, Christopher seems to command. The one-dimensional characters, the stock footage of baseball, the placid and predictable face of Mr. Baruth; these are not elements of poor writing. Or if they are, they’re designed that way, set pieces and cardboard cutouts that the reader can see around. Discard them all and we’re left with Sylvester Coddmyer III on an empty stage, swinging his bat at phantoms, winning empty victories in empty dreams.
The novel is an allegory for madness. Sylvester has done nothing to earn his success; he does not practice, does not change his approach. Recoiling from the horror of his own mediocrity, baseball becomes his fantasy world. So it acts as the medium for all human endeavor, all hope for permanence, the vanity of history. In the end Sylvester’s achievements are characters on a page, as are our own.
In The Kid Who Hit Home Runs, Matt Christopher has subverted the modern novel. He has created a happy ending that undercuts the concept of happiness itself. Sylvester Coddmyer III is a kid who only hit home runs, and that is meaningless. Everything is meaningless. We have been given our defining novel, and now we can only shudder and ask: what now?
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