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waiting for teddy williams

22 December 2004

That Waiting for Teddy Williams works at all is a testament to the narrative skill and engaging voice of novelist Howard Frank Mosher. That it doesn't work particularly well is no surprise. Mosher attempts to ring every possible change on the clichés of the baseball novel, and ropes in quite a few from the coming-of-age novel and the local-color novel as well. The result is a book that just about stays afloat under a punishing load of stock characters and motifs.

What can I but enumerate old themes, as William Butler Yeats might say. First there's the Our-Towny setting of Kingdom Common, Vermont. Next, a raw youth with a flair for baseball, who has somehow acquired the name Ethan Allen. Then there's Ethan's mom, a heart-of-gold hooker named Gypsy Lee who wants to move to Nashville and sell songs about gone-and-long-forgotten men. And say, what about Ethan's grandmother, who babysits Ethan by observing him through the scope of a loaded rifle?

There's even a country wife nicknamed R.P. because she literally brains her husband with a Rolling Pin. There's a tall, handsome drifter with a deadly hitting eye, unabashedly named Teddy Williams, who befriends young Ethan Allen in ways that recall the spectral assistance of George Baruth in Matt Christopher's Kid Who Only Hit Homers. There are adolescent boys killed in a fiery drunken car crash. And there's an improbable comeback by the Boston Red Sox with the help of the young protagonist.

Improbable comebacks by the Red Sox are no longer the sole province of fiction, which makes this novel ironically as snakebitten as its favorite team. The engine of the plot in the book's second half is a Boston team's attempt to win its first World Series since 1918 -- and dagnabbit, wouldn't the Sox go and pre-empt a perfectly good plot idea by actually winning the Series?

As I was saying, though, Waiting for Teddy Williams is hardly the worst baseball novel of the young century; in fact, it's hardly the worst Red Sox novel of the past couple of years. Despite its cartoonish characters and settings, Mosher has the sense to press his material without inhibitions, and he generates some good yarning along the way. I even like R.P.'s husband Devil Dan, who insists "that the environment was a lie made up by the socialists who ran the government in Montpelier" (29). Devil Dan is worth, if not the price of the book, at least a charge on your library card.

Mosher, Howard Frank. Waiting for Teddy Williams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.