To Try to Save a World

Summerland
Michael Chabon

It had to happen. It happens every time.

I get a few novels and some literature under my belt and start to feel cocky. “See,” I think, “I still know how to do this. Maybe I even learned something since the last time.”

Then reality intrudes.

What irks is not that I spend the time–the tedium-filled time–with a book that I just don’t see the point of. No, what irks is learning that the novelistic toothache I finally escaped is intended for young adults.

That’s what I get for grabbing things from the discard pile. Were I more selective I might have taken a cue from the cover art. But it wasn’t labelled young adult or, worse, fantasy. The image screamed baseball and I read baseball books in spring the way daffodils  sprout.

Plus, the author was Michael Chabon. He made a major splash some years back with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I held a vague notion that  bestseller had something to do with comics, which almost immediately diminished any interest I had in reading it. Here I figured I had a two-fer: baseball and a book that might give me the reason why I should read the better known one.

Our heroes hail from an island in Coastal Washington with a ball field that’s always in sunshine. Sort of like this lighthouse.

Such cynical decision-making almost always fails to work out for me. This time was no different.

To be fair, though, there is a lot of baseball. The whole interminable story revolves around baseball. And I’m certain there’s a reason for that. It’s just that,  once again, I am too obtuse to see it.

We meet, at the outset, two friends, Ethan  Feld and Jennifer T. Rideout, who live on Clam Island off the coast of Washington. Jennifer T.  is a tomboy (do we still use that word?) and no mean ballplayer. Ethan is not a natural and should appeal to every kid with two left feet and no athletic ability. Strangely, though I fit that description, I merely reached a place of tolerance.

Ethan’s dad is an inventor–he has , in fact, invented the most useful fabric ever created by man– and the two of them, unlike the Rideouts, who have deep local roots, are transplants having moved to Washington from Colorado after the death of Ethan’s mom. Here’s another place I should have felt some sympathy. Kids who experience parental or sibling death are forever different from other kids. Still, the best I could muster was tolerance, which is unusual.

Coyote, in native American folklore, is always making trouble. Sort of like foxes and serpents for Europeans. Or Joni MItchell songs for Californians and Canadians.

So much for the basic set-up. Except for the ball field, which is strangely forever bathed in sunlight, it’s a typical soggy Pacific Northwest scene. And then the ferishers arrive. Ferishers are a magical, small,  ageless people who speak a sort of 19th century sailor’s dialect (for example, humans are reubens) and play baseball. In fact, they seem to have played baseball since the dawn of time itself.

The ferishers have a problem which does little to interest the kids until Mr. Feld is kidnapped. Then something has to happen and so Ethan, and Jennifer T. (she is never without her middle initial) and Cinquefoil, leader of this group of ferishers–they seem to have naturally broken into teams/clans— are joined by another local lad, Thor and the adventure to rescue  Mr. Feld begins.

I like to be fair and  there’s a lot going on here, beyond the obvious, with names and references and forms. Thor is obviously is named after the  Norse god of thunder, though he’s a hapless soul who happens to harbor a secret that is key to the story and results in a radical change for him. Cinquefoil is the name of a flowering perennial, a member of the rose family. There are werefoxes (yup, a smaller version of the more familiar wolves), and a sasquatch named Tammy (yes, Tammy) and the big troublemaker–Coyote.

Okay, I’ve read enough anthropology to recognize Coyote is often the source of strife in the world. While it’s not exactly the same thing you could think of Coyote as being satan-like. I mean that not in the sense of a fallen archangel/prince of darkness but in the original, more limited meaning–an adversary. If God/nature is beneficent Coyote exists to upend that reality.

Baseball’s been around long enough to get the Currier & Ives treatment. Is it a coincidence that the first game was played in Elysian Fields, Hoboken, NJ.

In form the whole thing is more or less a prose epic. Maybe that’s appropriate since the book’s inability to grab me might lead me to label it prosaic. Suffice it to say, as in Homer or Mallory‘s  King Arthur or, for that matter, King David, a young man who may or may not be up to a big challenge takes on the task of saving the world.

I could probably keep teasing at threads in this vein for a while. In Theosopy and some neo-pagan thinking The Summerland is the afterlife. Obviously it needs a converse–the winterland,–although that’s not where our journey started. And there’s baseball, which  is almost always a metaphor for life itself. (If you ask me there’s no game/sport better suited to serving such a purpose.) And as long as we’re kitchen-sinking it, let’s have a bat crafted from a mystical source that is referred to by a truncated form of Ted Williams nickname even as it harkens back to Malamud.

Then there’s this hamfisted bit which makes me wonder equally about Chabon and critics. Mr. Feld, it turns out, has been kidnapped by Coyote who needs Feld to recreate his wonder fabric. It’s  needed to bring about the destruction of the world as we know it.  Coyote, it seems, has come to find the whole existence thing tiresome.

The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, 1945
Offered in the spirit of obviousness this book embraces.

When Ethan finally finds his father that task is complete. But Mr. Feld is a shade of his former self, so much so that he’s a facade, a Potemkin person. His insides have literally gone missing leaving him a shell.

Chabon leaves nothing to chance. “He didn’t want to help me, you can be sure of that ,” Coyote said. “Though the problem interested him extremely. You can see what it did to him. He’s become a Flat Man. Same thing happened to a  lot of those A-bomb fellows, back when I was putting that fiesta together.” (p. 437)

We ask 14 year-olds to read Shakespeare. Do we think they won’t get a metaphor unless you club them over the head with an explanation of it? Best to avoid the whole mess altogether.

 

 

 

 

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