Reviewed by William Boyle, SUNY - Maritime
AUGUST 22, 2007 archive
At the end of chapter five of Michael Rychlik’s Journeymen, protagonist Jersey Paige hears Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” playing from a pool hall nickelodeon while leaning against a car out in the street. In a strange way, this gives us a good feel for the entire novel. Like Hank’s high lonesome voice, Journeymen is comic, sad, and moving all at the same time. In this way, the book triumphantly settles into the literary landscape somewhere between W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
Journeymen takes place during minor league baseball’s postwar days when it was not unlikely to see former major leaguers playing out their careers in Class D leagues. Aspiring sportswriter Jersey Paige, trying to live down his reputation as the son of a politician and brother of two dead war heroes, is hot on the trail of Jake Powell and Myril Hoag, two ex-World Champion Yankees resigned to playing with the Gainesville G-Men. The year is 1948, and Jake and Myril are hanging onto a game that they are not ready to quit playing and lifestyles that they are not ready to move away from. Though the story revolves around these hard-boiled journeymen, the book is really about Jersey: his evolution as a sportswriter, his love for Katina Papadakis, and his realization that it is our duty to learn how to live well and truly in the world.
When Jersey meets Myril Hoag early on in the novel, Myril flicks out his cigarette, spits, and says: “When you’re a journeyman, kid, you go where you got to go. Bitch is, though -– when it’s finally over, you got nothing to show for it.” Jersey, shocked, replies: “But you were a Yankee.” As if that were enough. Myril says, “It was then. Now it’s just a pile of faded pages in my ex-wife’s scrapbook.” This bit of dialogue gets at the key theme in the novel, as Myril and Jake and other journeymen ghost after past glory, dead to the present. Rychlik’s exploration of this theme is tender and graceful, as he carefully examines the dark realization that most athletes must confront. Jersey, at one point, revisits Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, saying that “[there] were passages he had read so many times he knew them by heart,” and he also considers what John Steinbeck meant in the Prologue to Cannery Row: “Humans are imperfect, they prattle about in their battle with their foibles, frailties, and dysfunctions. They stray from light, fall into dark, compelling them to pimp, whore, gamble, and growl like sons of bitches until their spirits are transcended by nature into a unification with the Oversoul where saints, angels, martyrs, and holy men intermingle in the same complex being.” After this meditation, Jersey belches, and we have another indication that he is a searcher, passing from idealism to mechanistic determinism and on the road to understanding the great web of being. And, we discover, a couple of hardscrabble old ballplayers serve as his signposts, his guides.
The final passage of the novel is so reminiscent of Warren’s All the King’s Men -– among the greatest two or three novels of the Twentieth Century -– that Jersey Paige, for a moment at least, transforms into Jack Burden and Jake Powell becomes his Willie Stark. Journeymen is no All the King’s Men –- it’s not even in the same ballpark (few books are) -– but it is a refreshing read in a time when the lens is focused on lesser works like Peter Golenbock’s 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel. Journeymen deserves a wider readership than it will have. If I ever teach the baseball literature class that I would like to teach someday, I would surely put it alongside books like The Natural, Shoeless Joe, You Know Me Al, Bang the Drum Slowly, and The Kid from Tomkinsville.
Rychlik, Michael. Journeymen. Clifton, VA: Pocol Press, 2007. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-929763-28-3.
Copyright © 2007 by William Boyle.