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12 july 2010
Stephen King's "Blockade Billy" is a sturdy baseball story in the pulp tradition. I don't know whether it's technically a "novella" or a "novelette," mainly because I have no idea what the difference is, but it's the sort of longer fiction that used to appear in Street & Smith's Sport Story Magazine back in the day. Of course, there are two big contrasts between old pulp stories and "Blockade Billy": the old pulps would have played down the grisly bloodshed, and they would sooner have washed their mouths with carbolic soap than use such nasty language.
The blue vocabulary in "Billy" is the more dissonant when you consider the packaging of the story, one of two printed together in library-binding duodecimo with a hokey cover meant to evoke Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post. The cover, showing catcher Billy tagging out a sliding baserunner, alludes to tales of bushers and veterans, crusty managers and pert girlfriends. The actual story, being by Stephen King, is a descent through several levels of Hell.
Before assessing "Blockade Billy," though, I want to make an intolerable pedantic digression into a baseball passage from the story. Those who can't abide pedantic digressions should resist opening the link below. But for those who don't mind long-winded nitpicking, I do have a point: baseball is very hard to narrate, even if you're a fan (and King is) and a talented writer (ditto). If you accept that point without illustration, just leave the link unclicked.
Perhaps because baseball is so hard to narrate, stories like "Blockade Billy," even when competent, tend to be overwritten: overexpository, full of garrulous narration and overexplained plot maneuvers. King's story is no exception. It's not a bad story. Billy is one of the rootless mystery men who populate baseball fiction. He's akin to Roy Hobbs, Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo., the Seventh Babe, or Cyrus Nygerski. He arrives in the major leagues, becomes an instant star, and proves too good to be true.
As always when reading Stephen King, I enjoy the first part of the story, when things are still hazy, much more than the denouement, when he explains each element of the plot s-l-o-w-l-y for the reader so you can g-e-t e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Remember the scene at the end of Psycho where a psychiatrist (played by Simon Oakland) tells us all about Norman Bates, carefully assigning him to the correct pathology and explaining how all that havoc got wreaked in the motel? We get something much like that here. I guess we have to. For all his expostulations about art (and despite his fine novel Misery, which chafes against constraints on art), Stephen King remains a very careful provider for his readership. Letting mysteries stay mysteries is for highbrow foreigners. In America, and especially in baseball, we gotta know "what happened."
King, Stephen. "Blockade Billy," in Blockade Billy. (New York: Scribner, 2010): 3-80.