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20 november 2010
There's more murder than baseball in Rick Wilber's Rum Point, but the book is subtitled "A Baseball Novel." Partly this may be to create a better fit with publisher McFarland & Company's baseball-heavy list; partly it's to connect the book with Wilber's distinguished baseball fiction and memoir. But in some sense, Wilber's energetic Florida noir tale does enact the rhythms and the ruefulness of baseball. It's a book packed with characters who almost get what they want, but are fooled by curveballs on the game's final pitch.
The copy of Rum Point that I read, InterLibraried from the ominously generic "Mid-Continent Public Library," has a little label on its spine, featuring a deerstalker hat: detective, one immediately associates. But as I said above, it's not so much a detective story as a Florida noir. There is no real detective, for one thing, though there's a tough cop named Felicity who sets off from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the Caymans to clear up a murder case where she was first on the scene.
But instead of mystery and solution, we get farrago and carnival. Rum Point might be thought of as a high number card in the pack of fiction where Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen are the aces, and Paul Levine and Les Standiford are at least jacks. (In fact one of Wilber's minor characters is named Standiford, as if to underscore the association.) The book opens with a very Hiaasen moment, as a mortally-wounded murder victim crawls ashore in the tracks of an endangered sea turtle. Things just get uglier from there.
The baseball? Felicity's dad Stu Lindsay is the alcoholic, frequently hallucinating manager of the St. Pete Crusaders, an expansion club ("not at all similar [I hope] to the Rays," says Wilber, vii) that plays in a domed stadium and is scrapping for a playoff spot. The team is owned by a simpatico mega-preacher in the grips of dementia. Elements of Florida Noir fall into place around the Crusaders: drug addicts, drug runners, drug kingpins, gentle biologists, supermodel federal agents, you name it. At times you can barely tell the players, and there's no scorecard. But that's the point: you either like this noir genre, or you don't; you don't demand excessive clarity. As in many books by Hiaasen, each short chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters (in all senses) of the novel. There's a certain amount of choreography to get various characters to converge, but Wilber does it skillfully.
It's a very enjoyable novel. Readers of this website will know that I discard books vigorously; I didn't put Rum Point down till I'd read the entire Epilogue and got every character safely to his or her destination.
Wilber, Rick. Rum Point: A baseball novel. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.