Baseball at the End of the World

All of a sudden young-adult fiction is the thing to do. A disparate lineup of authors, from literary-fiction factory Joyce Carol Oates and horror writer Clive Barker to the Floridian parodist Carl Hiaasen, are bringing out books for an audience far younger than their norm. Leading the way is Michael Chabon, whose new book, Summerland, is his first for younger readers and arrives with the buzz associated with special and unusual things. It‘s special due to predictions that the novel could sell like the Harry Potter books; unusual because Summerland is the follow-up to Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize--winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. From the get-go, then, this book is an odd duck -- a first-rate author‘s effort to craft a story destined for an enormous middlebrow audience.

Chabon claims that he simply wanted to write something his three children would read, but you can’t help but wonder if there are less noble ends at play. His last two films were optioned by film producer Scott Rudin; Wonder Boys was, of course, made -- and made well -- by Curtis Hanson. And on his Web site, Chabon writes of three failed efforts to create a TV series, noting ”the tantalizing financial possibilities presented by writing for television.“ Perhaps it‘s no coincidence that Summerland is published by Miramax BooksHyperion, a synergy-ready publisher if ever there was one.

For the most part, though, I take the writer at his word. What has made Chabon’s previous books so effective is that they have invariably succeeded as both high culture and mass entertainment. They‘re engaging intellectually, yet Chabon never sacrifices the flow of the story for games or tricks. Kavalier and Clay’s story about two Depression-era comic book artists showed his sincere affection for ”low“ forms of literature. And in January, McSweeney‘s will publish an issue edited by Chabon, a collection of best-selling authors doing genre stories -- crime, sci-fi, Westerns and the like. Clearly, he believes there’s something to be said for popular culture.

Even the way he mines his ”literary“ influences speaks to how Chabon considers storytelling his paramount virtue. One of his favorite authors is Jorge Luis Borges, and the presence of the magical realist‘s work is palpable in the way Chabon spices the mundane world with hints of the fantastic. But he reads less like Borges than he does like a kind of Californian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chabon’s prose is rich, but he never employs language for language‘s sake. Rather, his seductive flow of verbiage acts as a kind of gully wash, carrying the reader along in waves of sentiment, emotion, affection.

Where Marquez’s work has a constant, low-level erotic charge, the constant in Chabon‘s work is characters with a warm and sunny disposition -- in spite of less-than-sunny circumstances. Wonder Boys featured a pothead author, a debauched editor and a suicidal student; Kavalier and Clay, a closeted homosexual and his angsty Eastern European cousin, who has just escaped from the hands of the Nazis. But the lot of them still seem so . . . nice. They can be painfully sincere, but they are never insipid, and the result is a wonderful kind of fiction; motives are clear in Chabon’s world, and manipulation is largely absent. (Machiavelli would probably do quite well for himself there.) The division between good and evil may not sync up with the world we live in, but what could be better for a children‘s book?

Summerland reads like a brilliant bedtime story, improvised installment by installment over several hundred nights of those punchy minutes before tuck-in. It’s about baseball, a reluctant 11-year-old hero named Ethan Feld, and his quest to save an American idyll off the coast of Washington state where it never rains. It is also about the possible end of the world.

Ethan is a hapless Little League player, his father a hapless inventor, and their reduced family of two still reels from the cancer death of Ethan‘s mother. The plot gets rolling when a villainous venture capitalist tricks Mr. Feld into helping a satanic figure named Coyote invent a machine that will poison the waters that feed the Tree of Life. This will hasten the coming of Ragged Rock, the end of the world by another name. Soon, Ethan is introduced to the natives of Summerland, an elfin race known as ferishers, who pick him as their hero. Ethan and his rapidly multiplying cast of associates attempt to track down Coyote by scampering between dimensions in Skidbladnir, a family dirigible invented by Mr. Feld. To name but a few of the secondary characters that Ethan collects over the course of the story, there is a sasquatch named Taffy; a Cuban defector and batting champ for the Anaheim Angels, Rodrigo Buendia; and a tiny giant named Grim.

The book borrows from several strands of myth, though Chabon intertwines them freely so that there is no clear-cut derivation. The wise ferishers are stand-ins for Native Americans. Ragged Rock seems an awful lot like Ragnarok in Norse mythology, a final world battle between gods and giants. Mr. Feld’s flying car, Skidbladnir, is also of Scandinavian design -- it‘s a modified Saab. The mischievous Coyote seems a stand-in for the Norse god Loki, though he could represent the Native American trickster -- or both. Still, the story is most of all a tale of discovery. New allies, opponents and confrontations are constantly introduced, then resolved one by one. Summerland thus unfolds a bit like a video game, as Ethan and company scamper between worlds with the rapidity of Super Mario tackling new levels of the Nintendo franchise.

The real magic here, however, is Chabon’s facility for enlisting less-than-obvious ways of storytelling, methods that borrow neither from myth nor from the entertainment culture: How many books for young adults introduce not just moral, but philosophical, dilemmas? Now and again, the narrator pops out like the Stage Manager in Our Town to convey The Message, or just to say hello -- occasional breaks in the plot that will chill even the most jaded reader to the bone. As we near the story‘s climax, for example, Ethan is confronted by La Llorona, a demon that’s taken the shape of his dead mother. The boy experiences an early bout of existential dread:

And in that moment he felt -- for the first time that optimistic and cheerful boy allowed himself to feel -- how badly made life was, how flawed. No matter how richly furnished you made it, with all the noise and variety of Something, Nothing always found a way in, seeped through the cracks and patches. Mr. Feld was right; life was like baseball, filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches, a game in which even champions lost almost as often as they won, and even the best hitters were put out seventy percent of the time. Coyote was right to want to wipe it out, to call the whole sad thing on account of darkness.

That‘s not exactly your average young-adult-reader material.

Through much of Summerland there is a sense that Chabon is so intent on world building that his considerable talent for plotting has given way to brainstorming. In this way, the book sometimes reads too much like those stories improvised over several hundred sleepy nights, or like the ballooning 2,600-page manuscript Grady Tripp chips away at in Wonder Boys. As Chabon piles on the characters in Summerland, I got the feeling that I was watching ESPN’s broadcast of the National Football League‘s draft day. There are too many werebeings and ferishers and giants to keep track of.

Then again, I may be less in need of an author planting the seeds of a new world in my head. Most kids don’t have that problem. They will likely be transported by Summerland in a way that Chabon describes early on:

In a book or a movie, when strange things begin to happen, somebody will often say, ”I must be dreaming.“ But in dreams nothing is strange. Ethan thought that he might be dreaming not because a nude werefox had shown up making wild claims and smoking a pipe that was definitely not filled with tobacco, but because none of these things struck him as particularly unexpected or odd.

At its best, that is what this book is like. And that is what will happen, if you let it.

SUMMERLAND: A Novel | By MICHAEL CHABON | Miramax BooksHyperion | 492 pages | $22.95 hardcover

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