Hardball Times Review
Steve Treder Book Review: The Fade-away
September 11, 2007
In the first decade of the new century, the United States finds itself embroiled in a bloody war against a stubborn insurgency, halfway around the globe. As the conflict drags out, year upon year, it stimulates intense and sometimes divisive political debate at home: Opponents of the war (particularly Democrats, since the military action was initiated by a Republican administration) consider it wasteful, jingoistic and imperialist, while defenders assert it as a proper and necessary American responsibility.
It's an uneasy era. Immigration is another hotly debated issue, as the ethnic makeup of the country is being transformed, and racial and cultural tensions are high. Technological innovation rushes forward, heedless to the objections of any who question its efficacy. Entrepreneurial opportunity swirls about, flashing promises of easy money, enriching a few but frustrating most.
Baseball, ever-popular, holds the center of this political, social and economic maelstrom, intensely distilling its best and worst: traditional standards of virtue and sportsmanship grappling with temptationsof win-at-any-cost deviousness.
Such is the scene depicted in George Jansen's new novel, The Fade-away, set in the year 1900. The more things change, the morethey stay the same, as they say.
Familiar modernity --or, perhaps, universal eternity-- revealed in the past is just one of many themes that Jansen elegantly weaves into this exceptionally strong historical novel. It's a romantic comedy with dark undertones, or perhaps a tragedy presented with warmth and humor: either way, the balance is deftly struck. Serious issues of greed, cruelty, and violence, indeed good and evil and right and wrong, are dealt with unflinchingly, yet never pedantically, in this gracious and charming 231-page yarn about baseball, America, yearning and coping.
Timeless truths not withstanding, the best historical fiction unerringly places itself in a very specific time and place. Jansen's Port Newton, Calif., is a fictitious town, but it's inspired by the actual hamlet of Port Costa, residing within a splendidly detailed San Francisco Bay Area at the turn of the 20th century: Martinez, Benicia, Concord, Oakland and San Francisco are all distinctly and colorfully rendered. The unique ethnic and cultural stew that was and is the Bay Area is appropriately spiced: Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, German-Americans, Chinese-Americans, African-Americans and so on, cheek-by-jowl in the oddly Californian brew of open-minded tolerance laced with racism, both subtle and blatant.
But The Fade-away is a novel, not a textbook of history or sociology. The 1900 Port Newton setting is merely the stage upon which the story's cast of characters comes to life. There is no dominant main actor; it's a true ensemble. Jansen revolves our perspective through four distinct voices, heard in present tense as well as in years-later recollection:
The fates of these four tightly intertwine with those of several others:
All of these characters, and more, are vividly animated, not a cardboard cutout among them. They're three-dimensional, attractive and flawed: We like them all while agonizing over their faults and failures. Mostly what we do is identify with them, and root for them. In their richness and vibrancy, the multiplicity of characters is comparable to those in the wonderful novels of Armistead Maupin.
Character-rich fiction is driven by the engine of dialogue, and Jansen demonstrates an expert ear for it, funny and true. On page 1 we're drawn right in, via this exchange between Doc and Foghorn:
The quickest wit is brandished by Dobbs, who's been everywhere and seen everything, and had anything but an easy life. His interactions with young Cal, in particular, crackle with smart-alecky fun. Dobbs tells Cal it's high time he lost his virginity, was 'made a man,' and Cal objects:
And here's how Cal describes Dobbs's needling of Foghorn Murphy:
Alongside warm and funny moments, sad and ugly events unfold, as the plot strides rapidly toward its noisy climax. Here the voice of Sophie describes the action:
It's likely you've never heard of George Jansen. This is just his second novel, and it's published by a small house. You probably won't find a big stack of copies at your local Barnes & Noble. You'll probably have to seek this one out online.
Take my advice: Do so. Your effort will be more than amply rewarded. This is a flawless book, every bit as richly wrought as such classics of the genre as Eric Rolfe Greenberg's The Celebrant, yet a quicker, funnier read than that book. The Fade-away is something very special.
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