By Bob Levin
Burnstown. 236 pp. $19
Reviewed by Joseph Myers
A single tear joined my son as my company when I finished reading Away Game by Bob Levin. Looking to the left to catch my 5-year-old in a carefree moment, I blinked the drop onto page 214, thanked the book for having prompted it, and focused on my fortune in being a father.
Mel Bauman, however, never shared my enthusiasm, at least not in the first life Levin has created for him. Mel apparently perishes in a Manhattan fire just after Game Seven of the 1955 World Series triumph by the Brooklyn Dodgers over the New York Yankees, but Hank, his abandoned son, 2 years old at the time of the series, and in his 70s when the story starts, covets closure. So - via the spinner and pegs from a '57-issued All-Star Baseball game - he transports himself first to the fateful day, then to Ohio nine years later (yes, later) to see what bond he and his father could have forged and what else might have been.
Baseball, father-son considerations, and time travel have come together before, as in Field of Dreams and Frequency. But Levin - a Toronto writer with Philadelphia roots that come through most vividly (and perhaps painfully) with Hank's recollection of the Phillies' 1964 collapse - adds a fine literary treatment of the themes and infuses the story with admirable looks at race relations.
Hank finds his father, now going by the name Jimmy Barnes, managing a baseball team in Ohio. Among Mel/Jimmy's challenges is the place of African American ballplayers at a time of racial strife and social upheaval. Hank has his own problems, too, including the declining health of his mother, the sting of his wife's death, and the distance between him and his own son, Luke. Deep examinations of regret, resilience, and reconciliation propel the plot.
"Did you ever think you might have been better off without me?" father asks son.
"I've thought about it," son replies, adding: "Might even be some truth to it" - and ending with, "But I still wish you'd stayed."
In sharing a year with his father, "the most infuriating man I've ever known," Hank learns not only of the strained marriage that drove that father to leave but also of his internal turmoil and external bravado - almost insane bravado, given the forces against Jimmy. (His racial tolerance earns him enemies; he also harbors a secret about another character's transgressions.)
Jimmy's angst leads Hank, hoping to save his father from his "second" death and salvage a relationship with his own son, to bring Luke into the odyssey.
Three generations of Bauman men are thus endearingly brought together. We are reminded of the simplicity we covet and the barriers, many self-built, against it. Both harsh and harmonious exchanges among the three ensue, with baseball as binding agent.
Hank and supporting cast often speak of Jimmy as deliberate and calculating, especially in his attempt to outwit the local toughs, and one could say the same of Levin. Strong character development, a judicious balance between exposition and conversation, and a methodical pace prove rewarding, with Hank's extensive time in Ohio a well-crafted what-might-have-been lover's dream come true. Away Game is likely to leave readers eager for the boys of summer to return - and hopeful that the effects of loved ones on their lives will never fade.