Baseball Books Reviewed: The Powers

The Powers: A Novel, by Valerie Sayers. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 2013. HB (picture cover), 298 pp. $24.95.

One of the reasons Mike Shannon and the late Jim Harrison decided way back in 1980 to launch their quixotic endeavor named SPITBALL: The Literary Baseball Magazine was due in large part to the uninformed snobbery of many literary editors and critics, so many of whom couldn’t accept baseball as a proper vehicle for serious literary writing. One can almost hear Marianne Moore, Bernard Malamud, Robert Coover, John Updike, Donald Hall, Mark Harris, and thousands other marvelous poets, novelists, short story authors, and essayists of the day, in one voice, respond with the time-honored, universal descriptor major leaguers have used for a bad call or poor performance since they first started keeping score:

“That’s horse%&*t!”

And yet, even today, any time a baseball novel gains any measure of traction with the media, far too often, reviewers still feel obligated to assure readers that the book isn’t ‘really’ about baseball, as if that’s the only way to legitimize a novel’s merits if its central theme involves baseball.

Say it with me:

“That’s horse%&*t!”

So it wasn’t at all surprising when reading reviews of Valerie Sayers’ The Powers, several critics fell all over themselves to praise the novel as “not just about baseball,” but after a careful read of the beautifully written effort, I was surprised to find myself questioning just how much baseball is in this baseball novel.

Sayers sets her story in pre-war summer, 1941, and the ‘powers’ mentioned in the title refer to the ability to know certain aspects of the future that one Joe DiMaggio is certain he possesses, and indeed, the opening chapter that describes his claustrophobic apartment life with pregnant wife Dorothy and game day trip to the Yankee Stadium clubhouse with garrulous friend and teammate Lefty Gomez. It may be the finest, most nuanced and powerful capturing of the enigmatic icon’s personality yet written, a true triumph.

However, rather than focusing primarily on The Yankee Clipper and his pressurized, celebrated hitting streak, the author shifts the novel to the O’Leary family, primarily the matriarch, Babe, a huge Yankee fan who lives in the heart of Brooklyn, wields authority over her widowed son and granddaughters’ lives with equal parts spy and sarcastic bully, and believes she has the strength to extend Joe’s streak and bring success to the Yanks merely with her presence in the stands.

Babe tries her meddling best to influence Agnes, a high school senior who is in a pseudo-romantic relationship with two classmates – one ready to fight for his country, should America enter the war, the other an idealistic pacifist equally dedicated to his beliefs, even at the risk of imprisonment, and much of the novel explores this triangle of love and lust, politics and emerging adulthood.

The fact that these young adults aren’t much interested in baseball brings into question the importance of the game to the narrative, but Babe’s passion, DiMaggio’s streak, and a pivotal trip to Ebbets Field for a World Series game provided the definitive answer. Mid-twentieth century America was in many ways defined by and obsessed with the National Pastime, and that obsession is expertly captured by Powers, as The Streak and the pennant races continuously are threaded into important, life-changing conversations and events, and while we wish more time was spent delving into DiMaggio’s psyche, the story and the novel simply wouldn’t ring true or hold together without baseball. A chance encounter between Agnes and famous photographer Walter Evans is ambitiously reflected by the numerous black-and-white snapshots sprinkled throughout the text, a unique effort that may prove more distracting than evocative to some readers.

Sayers’ deft craftsmanship, strong character development, and a fascinating, period-relevant storyline elevate The Powers to the rarified status of a Casey Award-nominated novel, one that is about baseball just as much as it is about the human condition and moral ambiguity, and any critic who believes that those archetypical devices cannot exist in a baseball novel is, well… you know.