Saturday, February 13, 2010

DOUBLE PLAY by Robert B. Parker

I've been reading Robert B. Parker novles for a long time, going back to my Ur-blog, the Blackboard, in the late '90s to early '00s. I finally got around to reading DOUBLE PLAY from 2004, Parker's imagining of the job of Jackie Robinson's bodyguard in 1947, the year Jackie became the first modern-era African American MLBer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. There's a little bait-and-switch here if you think you're going to get much Jackie. Parker creates a character, Burke, and the third-person narrator gives us his backstory of a WWII Marine, recovering from martial and marital injuries, looking to make a living after the war. He is a trained rifleman. A sojourn as a boxer leads to another tough guy profession--bodyguard, and in the best noir tradition, to a rich man's nymphomaniacal daughter.

Word about Burke reaches Branch Rickey about two-fifths of the way into the novel and that's what I meant about the bait-and-switch. Once Jackie appears, he is not fully realized, but we do get enough to see that he was the one man who could have endured the viciousness. It's been reported many times but bears repeating: Rickey asked Robbie, for the first year in the bigs, not to fight back, to take every slur, insult, and object thrown at him. In this novel it includes bullets, so Rickey hires help.

Burke's emotional scars from a bad marriage heal from being around Jackie and family and a cause to fight for, and Jackie gets in Burke an unimpeachable ally, at a time when even some of his own teammates hate his Dodger blue guts. One wonders about his second year on the Dodgers and if the threats subsided in any way. Did the haters all call each other and move on to other interests, like keeping innocent black children from integrating school? How did they communicate with each other before FOX News and WABC talk radio? I digress.

The novel continues Parker's love of short chapters. His chapters and sentences got shorter and shorter as his career progressed. There are two quirky forms between the regular chapters, a series of interludes about his bad marriage titled "Pentimento," and several chapters each titled "Bobby," which read autobiographically about an older man's look back at his younger self, musing on race, love, and baseball.

The writing is too Spenserish. Phrases from Spenser novels populate this one, like Bobby's "Hubba hubba," or his Burke's wartime girl friend reflecting on the way he confronts the danger of battle, "But you do it."

The eBook experience: there are nine box scores included and they are hard to read on the eBook. The images are surrounded by a lot of white space and it makes enlarging and scrolling hard to do, but this may also be a fault of an insensitive scroll bar. Also, Box Score 4 is titled but the image is missing. I do book production for one of the world's oldest publishers and I'd hate to be the production editor who missed this. (I've done worse.)

You expect more out of the people you admire and I expected more from DOUBLE PLAY.

Postscript: The Daily News used to run an ad in the subway, a picture of Jackie Robinson riding the subway and reading the Daily News. It's impossible to imagine today. John Rocker of the Braves is the last recorded MLB subway passenger. My mother saw the Gas House gang take the train to the Polo Grounds to play the NY Giants, carrying their equipment. She went to Ladies Day with her mother and upgraded her ticket for a box seat, sitting not far from the Vanderbilts. There was a time when the richest people sat amongst us and professional athletes rode the subway. Today we have luxury boxes for the wealthy and big leaguers don't even have roommates any more.

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