Book review:  Home, Away

A failing of many otherwise-excellent novels (and, particularly, movies and TV shows) is that the protagonist dwells in a world strangely devoid of family.

One understands the logic behind it. Essentially, (a) the author is eager to prune away distractions and needless complications from the core plot and action, and (b) the “lone wolf” hero figure is an attractive guy-fantasy anyway, so much that he’s a cliché in male-oriented fiction genres, such as the Western, the police procedural or the spy thriller.

Baseball novels seem particularly prone to this. Oh, sure, the weatherbeaten veteran hero of your typical baseball novel will have a love interest (perhaps several!), but rarely will he be forced to navigate within the structure of a true family, the way nearly all of us do in the real world: not just interacting with a significant other, but also with parents, kids, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews—and dealing with all the joys, agonies and banal routines that family dynamics inevitably bring.

This certainly isn’t the case with Home, Away, a first novel presented by Jeff Gillenkirk. This is a baseball novel that not only places its protagonist within a family dynamic, it offers the family dynamic as the central thrust of the story. Indeed, one could accurately describe this book as a multi-generational family saga within a baseball setting.

Baseball giveth and baseball taketh away

Yet the baseball in Home, Away is far more than mere backdrop. Indeed, the book’s vivid description of every small element of ballplaying (not just within games, but also in the elaborate sweaty rituals of warmup and practice) is rich with lovingly exquisite detail. The sport itself is very nearly a character altogether: an alluring temptress, seducing the player with her sensual beauty and her timeless mystery, and a harsh mistress, punishing the player with her grueling schedule and her endless, pitiless difficulty.

The grueling schedule, and the larger demands of the “away” nature of baseball as a profession—not just the long road trips, but the national (and international) scale of the business, trading players on a whim and abruptly uprooting them to a faraway new “home” city—is one of the book’s stark themes, depicted as the deadly enemy of healthy family life.

The main character of the story is a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher named Jason Thibodeaux, and the long arc of the plot centers on his relationship with his son, Raphael, over a period of two decades. Their relationship is anything but simple and easy, and of course it’s complicated by the ever-looming presence of the third party who necessarily links them. The story becomes a doozy of a three-way dysfunctional battle of wills between father, son and ex-wife/mother.

The cycle of hurtful and downright stupid blunders executed by each of the three makes for uncomfortable reading at many junctures. These characters are all too believable in their weakness and self-defeating pride; the reader is compelled to root for them despite not always liking them, simply because they’re so real. This is how people in stressful and unpleasant circumstances (or, let’s face it, any circumstances) all too often actually behave. One all too often sees oneself in these struggling actors.

Yet the story isn’t only one of struggle and pain. These characters learn and grow—in fits and starts, with slip-ups and regressions aplenty, just like in real life—and they strive and achieve and give and love and are loved. Just like in real life. The story includes plenty of darkness, but also episodes of true and deep honor, and sacrifice and devotion. Just like in real life.

Runs, hits and errors

I highly recommend the book, but it’s far from perfect. Gillenkirk’s ear for dialogue is good, but the occasional line falls with a thud. Overall the tone could benefit from a sharper sense of humor: Gillenkirk well conveys the dynamic tension between competition and camaraderie that defines a ball club (or pretty much any other grouping of young men), but he rarely captures the pervasive, highly profane, and often genuinely hilarious wit that infuses young men’s banter.

And there are a couple of simple logical botches. At one point Gillenkirk has the Cincinnati Reds dejectedly walking off the field in mid-inning after surrendering a tie-breaking ninth-inning home run—at Riverfront Stadium. And at another point he has a bus driver hauling a bush league team from Santa Rosa, Calif,, to Yuma, Ariz., via Donner Pass and Reno, Nev. If you aren’t familiar with these places and don’t immediately know how ridiculous such a route would be, I suggest you consult Google Maps and have yourself a good laugh.

But these are quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed Home, Away. It‘s a quick, fun, thoughtful and engrossing read. And at more than one point my eyes were rendered quite moist. As one of the book’s back-cover blurbs puts it: “Anyone who’s ever been a father or had one is in for a treat.” Amen to that.

References & Resources
Home, Away, by Jeff Gillenkirk, Seattle: Chin Music Press, 2010

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