Monday, November 24, 2014

"The Legend of Mickey Tussler"
by Frank Nappi
What elevates “The Legend of Mickey Tussler” by Frank Nappi from the status of good baseball story to excellent work of fiction is the author’s use of baseball as a metaphor for human aspirations and relationships. Mr. Nappi’s story, which takes place after World War II, has its villains and its beloved, vulnerable characters and an assortment of individuals capable to displaying varied degrees of empathy when their individual needs and ambitions are not interfered with. Failure is determined sometimes -- like a broken-bat single or a homerun hooked suddenly foul -- by chance but more often by selfish, powerful people. Epitomized by baseball manager Arthur Murphy, an aspiring person struggles against adversity and endures setbacks but does not give up. He must find like-minded souls (Molly, Mickey Tussler’s mother) to sustain him and, possessing empathy, he looks beyond himself to shield the vulnerable (the Asperger’s Syndrome farm boy Mickey).

The baseball aspect of Mr. Nappi’s story is excellent. The lingo is familiar; the characters are believable; the pennant race is exciting; the author’s knowledge of the game is clear-cut. Readers are rewarded for this reason alone.

However, it is the author’s writing skills that mostly make this book special. Mr. Nappi has done everything I hope to see a talented writer utilize.

Sharp sensory detail that establishes character presence: “Clarence [Mickey’s abusive father] stood leaning against a gray stone mantel, adorned with a yellowing lace doily held in place by an old brass lantern. Next to that was a family portrait in a tarnished frame and a dusty clarinet. Arthur’s eyes hurt, as if something acerbic were in the air. It smelled like cat urine or perhaps it was just mold spores. Either way, he could not stop rubbing his eyes.”

Visual detail interspersed with economical, purposeful dialogue: “‘Baseball?’ he mocked. ‘You want Mickey to play baseball? Now, what in tarnation is a baseball team gonna do with a retard? Huh?’

‘I don’t understand.’

The farmer was scratching his head. His amusement brought forth a smile, foul and yellow.

‘What my husband meant to say, Mr. Murphy, is that Mickey is a little –‘

‘I said exactly what I meant to say, woman,’ Clarence barked, raising his hand in mock attack. ‘Don’t you be correcting me. He’s a retard.’”

Back stories to add dimension to secondary characters: “McGinty [the shortstop] was definitely the best fit for Mickey. His dad had died when Elliot was just eleven years old. Consequently, young Elliot became responsible for looking out for his mom and his younger sister, Emily, who was born with a degenerative hearing condition that had rendered her deaf by age four. The little girl struggled, drifting through life diffidently, unable to keep pace in a world that moved too swiftly and carelessly to allow for her needs.”

Subjective narration that communicates abstractions: “She [Molly] had survived all these years by not focusing on the vast parameters of the world at large but on what was immediately around her. It usually worked. She could lose herself in the mixing of animal feed or the husking of corn. … But occasionally, this vapid existence preyed upon her more tender sensibilities, awakened now and again by glimpses of what could have been, and she cried out in painful protest for the life she really desired but had yet to cultivate.”

Theme: “‘And there’s always another at bat. A chance to redeem yourself. You could be washed-up one day, and a hero the next. Truly. Nobody is tied to their fate.’ … Once again, it appeared, time and events had conspired against him. He was being played with, manipulated by a capricious wind blowing him everywhere. … Murph shrugged his shoulders, as if to suggest that it didn’t really matter. But in the darkest, most remote corner of his soul, hanging restlessly from a single strand of sticky filament like an anxious spider, was the unmitigated, undeniable truth.”

Story, depth of character, social commentary, and writer skill justify this five-star rating.