August 20: “Prospectus” by John Brandon

Play ball, Story366! Today I’m in my office, writing up syllabi (yes, school starts Monday), watching the Cubs, and writing today’s post. Today I posted a comment on Facebook about the Olympic gold medal men’s soccer game ending in a 1-1 tie (until Brazil won in penalty kicks), and bemoaned soccer (as I often have in my life) for having too many games ending in a tie, forcing not-soccer to resolve the match. A couple of hours later, no one’s argued with me, no die-hard footballers defending their sport, ripping on my beloved baseball in the meantime. Maybe it’s just Saturday evening and soccer fans are at pubs, shattering steins of ale over each other’s heads. Or maybe they just agree with me. It’s odd that a game, the most popular in the world, could be around so long, have such a tremendous core concept, and still have fundamental problems like this. It’s as if someone invented skyscrapers before they invented elevators: logistics and infrastructure need to fall into place.

During this same week, the MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, is over-commissioning, announcing some ideas to shave five minutes or so off pro baseball games, history-altering moves like limiting pitching changes and outlawing shifts. Again, all to shave a few minutes off of game time, and somehow, at the same time, increase scoring. Even though the Cubs are selling out every game and more or less have for thirty-five years now, I fully understand that attendance and ratings are down in some MLB cities, that Mr. Commissioner is thinking that the way to get more asses in seats is to change 150-year-old rules. Outrageous prices have nothing to do with that, I suppose, as the commish didn’t exactly mention any ticket price freezes, let alone lowerings. I work at a Major League Baseball stadium and have for twenty-seven years now, and not once have I heard a fan complain that there are too many pitching changes or infield shifts; if the game is going on too long, they simply leave. How many fans, though, complain about the prices, of tickets, parking, and yes, the beers that I sell them? Dozens, every day. Hmm.

Let’s stick with the baseball theme tonight and discuss John Brandon‘s “Prospectus,” which is at least partly about baseball, the first scene set at a Little League game, because right now, the Cubs are winning 7-1 and I fucking love baseball. “Prospectus” is from Brandon’s debut collection, Further Joy, out from McSweeney’s, though Brandon is the author of three previous novels (all from McSweeney’s, who must like him or something). I began his book by reading the title story, “Further Joy,” and really liked it, assumed I would write about it. It’s a cool piece about these upper middle-class girls and their fathers, told in the fashion of One of the girls does this, one of the girls does that, one of the girls’ fathers is like this …, seemingly all of the sentences beginning with “One of the girls ….” Kind of reminded me of Rick Moody’s oft-anthologized “Boys.” I went to “Prospectus” next, and as soon as I found myself on a ball field, I knew I had today’s story.

“Prospectus” is about Marky Sessions, a Little League second baseman who can field but can’t hit. The story starts at one of his games, a game in which his team is losing, as usual, a hulkingly fat kid pitching for the other team and having his way with Marky and his mates. Marky displays some ingenuity during his second at bat (having been embarrassed in his first), just standing in the box, holding the bat straight out, across the plate, no matter what. The first pitch is out of the zone, but the ump calls it a strike—as he should, Marky’s bat out across the plate like he’s bunting—but the second pitch finds the barrel and is looped out into right for a hit. Soon, we’ll find out this is Marky’s main trait: The ability to figure his way out of a problem. Little League is just one part of his life in which he employs this skill.

Backing up a little, we get the set-up for the game in the first paragraph, but we also meet Nelson Greer, a mid-twenties guy who sits in the stands at a lot of Little League games, eating sandwiches and watching games. Marky notes his presence, which is important later, but just another detail in the first paragraph that could be a throwaway.

After the game, who Marky is and what the story is about starts to really come into focus. On his way home from the field, Marky stops by this guy’s house, a guy who’s going to make and sell Marky a huge drum for a band that he’s managing. Jokingly, the guy offers Marky a drink, but really, it’s easy to see why: Marky’s not yet a teen (or else he wouldn’t be in Little League), but he manages a band and makes deals with local craftsmen to invent musical instruments (which he thinks will make a promising band more memorable). And he just talks and acts like an adult. After the drum deal is signed, Marky heads home, where he lives with his uncle and cousin (Marky’s an orphan), and is clearly running the household. Great characterization from Brandon here, as the uncle is unemployed, but well meaning and collects everything he can, including chili recipes and vintage Japanese pornography (what a combo!). His cousin is obsessed with shooting things and knows it. Marky makes deals, invents things, consults, stunted only by his age and circumstances. Marky thirsts for more.

And that’s when we loop back to Nelson Greer, that guy from the Little League games who hangs out. In a lot of stories, Nelson Greer would seem like a creepy guy, someone who doesn’t have kids but likes to watch them play, the type of guy for whom they made the no-kids, no-entry rule at Chuck E. Cheese. But from Marky’s point of view, his smart, mature, confident perspective, it’s not really a thing. Greer is a guy who had it all, got fired for some insider training, and is a broken man. Marky doesn’t see a possible child molester, but a guy with skills, with something to prove, who’s also at peak buy time, his stock way low. I won’t go any further into the plot, or to explain this story, but I’ll say this: Marky is one fantastic character, one of my favorite protagonists all year on Story366.

Okay, Cubs up 8-2 in the eighth and this syllabi still need me to type “Fall 2016” over every place it says “Spring 2016.” Wait, what am I thinking? I just have to type “Fall” over “Spring,” as this is still 2016! I’ve just doubled my productivity! Anyway, I’m glad I got to John Brandon’s collection, though, as the stories I read were both really great and were really different from each other, one a traditional story featuring a fantastic lead, the other a stylistic exercise with equally great details. I like Further Joy a whole lot and hope to read more.