By Mike Steffanos
The Knuckleball From Hell
Author: Michael Wayne
Paperback, 288 pages, iThink Books
This book is the first fiction book I have reviewed for this web site. While much of the baseball fiction that is written tends to be formulaic, that's not a label you can stick on Michael Wayne's novel. Described on its cover as "a story of life, love, the New York Mets ...and everything in between and "humorous, quirky and irreverent", this book certainly comes as advertised.
The book is almost totally driven by an offbeat plot that is somewhat reminiscent of those classic movie screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, where the humor is piled on fast and furious and the action is fast-paced. In fact, the story is so quirky and convoluted, to completely lay it out would require more space than we have here. Here's a taste of it from the author's web site:
Here you will meet chicken wing eating Department of Homeland Security special agents, a Rastafarian quantum physicist, Hare Krishnas, the superhero Donutman, surfer dudes, a vodka-imbibing Russian Cossack first baseman, a Kalahari bushman third baseman, two New York bus drivers who become the Mets general managers, the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird" remade as the light hearted romantic comedy "Mockingbird," a mysterious stranger from Transylvania, and much, much more.
The Knuckleball From Hell tells the story of a fictional Mets team that is horrendous and been driven into the ground by its bankrupt owner, while the protagonist is a high school phenom who only wants to pitch for the Mets. Unfortunately, he blows out his arm and his career is seemingly over, until he has a chance encounter with a Professor on the lam from chicken wing eating Department of Homeland Security special agents, enabling the kid to join the Mets with a new pitch -- the Knuckleball from Hell.
Believe me, that's only a taste of what you will find in this book. Characters are introduced constantly, with personalities that range from eccentric to downright bizarre. Like the characters, the story itself runs the gamut from slightly off-center to outright farce at times, driven always by the irreverent sense of humor of Michael Wayne which literally infuses every page of his novel.
Like those old screwball comedies I mentioned earlier, the jokes keep coming and coming. While some inevitably fell flat, many of them made me chuckle or laugh out loud. Wayne won me over in the book's first chapter, when movie producer Chuck Johnson offers a film deal to Zane Hunt, the teenage pitcher who had no acting experience at all, while Zane's father Jim Hunt expresses some skepticism:
"Zane, you got what it takes to be the next American hero," Johnson began. "You're intelligent, good-looking, got a great personality, and most importantly, got a God-given gift to throw a ball faster than any mortal. You can be as big as you want. So my question to you is, how big do you wanna be?"
Johnson paused for effect and then continued. "Listen. I'm ready, right here and now, to offer you a three-picture deal to star in my next three blockbusters. We got lots of films in development and you'd be right for any number of 'em. For instance, we're gonna remake To Kill a Mockingbird, but this time make it more light-hearted, more of a romantic comedy, you know what I mean? We're gonna call it Mockingbird. Focus groups are telling us the words 'to kill a' are a downer and make it hard to market it as a feel-good story. You'd be a perfect Atticus Finch."
"Atticus Finch was a lot older than Zane," Jim interjected. "And he had a young daughter. Would that work?"
"Remember that TV show Doogie Howser about the kid who went to medical school real young?" Johnson answered right back. "Same thing here. Atticus went to law school young, married young, started a family young. It would work, believe me."
"Okay," Jim said, "you know the business."
For the most part, I enjoyed this book for the unconventional light-hearted romp that it was. It would seem to be a good choice for recreational summer reading, at the beach or in a backyard hammock. One caveat, though, is that you really have to be someone who enjoys this type of fantasy/farce to enjoy The Knuckleball From Hell. I have a friend that is very literal-minded that would absolutely hate those elements of the book. Fortunately, there is a sample chapter on Michael Wayne's web site that should give anyone considering purchasing this book a really good sampling of the story.
As for me, I enjoyed Michael Wayne's book very much. I did have a couple of small quibbles with it, though. I wished at times that he would have toned down the more outlandish aspects of the plot. I myself enjoy elements of farce and fantasy, but find them more effective when the story doesn't teeter into complete implausibility -- such as when a bunch of the new owner's surfing buddies are made coaches of the team. Also, although I know the story wasn't driven by character, I would have liked to have seen a little more character development. For instance, Wayne creates an interesting character and story line about the Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned surfer who winds up buying the team, but then he really doesn't do much with him for the rest of the book.
These are small quibbles, but I think they keep what I found to be a very good book from being even better. In any case, I recommend that you decide for yourself. At least give that free chapter on the author's web site a look. This smart, funny, unusual book is well worth your time.
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