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tartabull's throw

16 September 2003

There are so many weak books written about the Boston Red Sox that I approach each new title with trepidation. Is it going to be full of maundering about Yaz or the Splinter, of existential queasiness over Bucky or Buckner, of outrage that Pesky held the ball? Am I going to have to hear how Fenway Park is a green jewel, a green cathedral, a Green Monster? I had doubts, then, about Tartabull's Throw by Henry Garfield, but they were unfounded. It's a Red Sox novel without sentimentality. Instead, it has werewolves.

Tartabull's Throw is a magical-realist story. In the scheme of types proposed by Margin magazine, it is a Labyrinth story, one that "restructures time, setting, space." In August 1967, left-handed second baseman Cyrus Nygerski is released by the Beloit Turtles, just in time to see a crucial game at Comiskey Park. Red Sox rightfielder José Tartabull makes a storied throw to home plate to win a game for Boston. Or does he? Nygerski, possibly because he's on acid, senses a rift in time: a window into an alternate universe where Tartabull's throw fails and the '67 pennant race takes a fateful turn in a direction that will involve Nygerski personally.

The story also, as I've mentioned, involves werewolves. It involves a portal into alternate space-time continua, located in a remote cove way down East in Maine. It involves an eldritch young woman named Cassandra Paine, who spends the Summer of Love packing a revolver full of silver bullets. Tartabull's Throw is the third in a series of werewolf novels by Garfield (the others are Moondog and Room 13). It's a prequel to the first two, explaining how Cyrus Nygerski first got into lycanthropy.

The werewolf stuff is fun (and gruesome. Though this novel is marketed as a Young Adult title, the emphasis is on the Adult part. Tartabull's Throw contains explicit sex, disturbing violence, and uncensored vocabulary, as well as smoking and drug use, if those other things don't bother you as much as smoking and drug use.) But as good as some of this horror and fantasy can be, I can't explain how clever Garfield's use of baseball is.

I really can't explain it, without spoiling the entire plot of the novel, so I'm not going to. Suffice it to say that though this story is magical (as any story about a left-handed second baseman must be), it's also realist in ways that baseball novels rarely achieve without getting bogged down in historical minutiae. Garfield's 1967 is 1967, and at the same time it subtly isn't; his fine manipulations of chronology and causality keep the reader off-balance in consistently fascinating ways.

And yes, there is the obligatory paean to Fenway Park, a scene that I hoped Garfield would sidestep, but I guess a Sox novel can't really avoid. Fair enough. Garfield makes good plot use of his one trip to the Back Bay, so I will forgive one page of prose about its green spaces. And the prose stays green; it never becomes purple.

Tartabull's Throw is the best recent baseball novel I've read, for any age group. High-schoolers will love it; but junior-high and younger should stick with Bruce Brooks or John H. Ritter for a while longer. Adult readers will really appreciate this novel; it may get them howling for more.

Garfield, Henry. Tartabull's Throw. New York: Atheneum, 2001.