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the dog sox

3 november 2013

I've read a few baseball novels. I have learned to distrust ones that are titled after a wacky semi-pro team and open with a list of the wacky characters on this team of lovable misfits. When I hear that the manager is a sententious old Jewish guy, the star is a hothead young relief prospect, and the team owner is a sexy dame alternately coveted by the good-ol'-boy general manager, the English-teacher middle reliever, and the mascot … well, there's no sense in going beyond page three, right?

Wrong, as always. Russell Hill's The Dog Sox is a keen little novel, precisely because Hill has read the same wacky baseball novels that I've read, and knows how to play with his readers' expectations. For instance, The Dog Sox, like so much good baseball fiction, is a metafiction. That English-teacher middle reliever is writing a baseball novel of his own (which he hopes will include a chapter where the team owner yields to his seductions). Characters in The Dog Sox have read Mark Harris's Henry Wiggen novels; though they don't mention it, we're pretty sure they've seen Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. At one point, several of the characters try to live out noirishly inane hit-man scenarios.

Oddly enough for stories about such a peaceful and childlike game, sex and violence have been staples of the baseball novel since The Natural – actually, since long before The Natural, in juvenile and pulp fiction from the early 20th century. Hill knows that he'll have to supply sizable helpings of sex and violence to get a reader through the balls and strikes.

And he also knows that the less that happens on the field, the better. Henry Wiggen's own game stories tend to be a sentence or two, usually ending with "we took it" or "we lost." There are only so many weird things that can happen on a ballfield, and their weirdness is a matter of perspective: I saw some bizarre baseball things happen in the 2013 World Series, but my girlfriend just saw some bizarrely bad beards. In The Dog Sox, the game action is quick and arbitrary: far more important as a barometer of off-field dramas than something we care about for itself.

I recently read Hill's acclaimed eco-noir novel The Lord God Bird and simply loved it. The Dog Sox may be a shade less strong, and certainly two or three shades more comic, but it has important things in common with The Lord God Bird. In both novels, characters share an animal delight in sexuality. In both, violence erupts and characters too dumb to live try to ruin the lives of innocents. In both, there's a faith, though not a Pollyannish one, in the power of play, magic, art, and love. One might call these Russell Hill's themes, though I have a lot of reading to do before I can say so definitively.

Hill, Russell. The Dog Sox. New York: Caravel [Pleasure Boat], 2011.