- The Heart of the Order by Theo Schell-Lambert
Blake "Xandy" Alexander of Duluth, Minnesota, is the left fielder of the Carolina Birds of the NL South. A career .273 hitter in his late twenties, he bats sixth, "just outside the heart of the order" (16). He was a 24th round selection, has seven years of MLB service, makes $1.8 million per year, and has recently torn the cruciate ligament in his knee chasing a fly ball in Cincinnati. Schell-Lambert's novel describes Xandy's months-long rehab at a facility in East Palm Beach, where his "pain remained at a level that other people were comfortable with" (68). Living in a home borrowed from the brother of the Birds' Assistant GM, Xandy spends mornings in rehab and afternoons writing about life, baseball, and season-ending injury, for "the passingly curious, the casual fan," who "knows just enough to realize all [he's] missing" (9).
Heart is a series of riffs and aperçus on baseball and an olio of related subjects, including bats, rain delays, players' cars, packing for travel, little league, Fenway, and, not least, Xandy's comely therapist, Jenn. Some of the riffs are line drives to the gap, but, inevitably, others are bouncers to short. Examples of the former include Xandy's characterization of baseball as "a masterpiece of distances and spacings, a 99.9% functional math proof" (30). Or, "Sprain a toe one year, then take a pitch to the wrist the next, and suddenly you're injury-prone" (45). Particularly amusing is his observation that Gaylord Perry "rode his salivary glands to the Hall of Fame …" (105).
Oddly, among this cornucopia of witty observations, there is no mention of steroids or performance-enhancing drug usage among Xandy's teammates, a strange omission from such an acute observer. [End Page 218]
Xandy is loquacious, but his authorial voice is literate, cocky, intelligent, and reflective. Many of his monologues are beautifully written, although back-to-back-to-back, they blend and merge, like too many tapas at an endless table. Xandy may be "slow of foot and fleet of mind" (14), but Heart is also chary of plot. Two continuing themes are the fear of losing his job to the rookie brought up to replace him and his attraction to Jenn.
The rookie is doing well—too well. By September, when Xandy's rehab ends, his replacement is batting .290 and is a candidate for Rookie of the Year. Indeed, Xandy refers to him as "Roy," an acronym for the award. Worse, Xandy is told that next year he will have to compete for the left fielder's job: "My agent is thrilled about my prospects as a back-up major leaguer" (211). There follows a meditation on a ballplayer's fate, a descent of status from full-time, to platoon, to pinch hitter, to oblivion, where you "see your world as a bullpen, a place to wait for phone calls that might or might not come" (227).
As for Jenn, Xandy is attracted to this divorced mother of a small boy, but he hardly seems passionate. We learn nothing of his prior involvement with women, and his most sexually explicit remark is "The body gets urges over a long season" (223). Baseball is so central to his physical and mental calculus that there is little energy to spare for other signatures of his humanity. Perhaps we can record it as positive that Xandy becomes jealous when another injured player arrives, and Jenn is reassigned to the newcomer's therapy.
Xandy's periodic returns to these plot lines, touching base, do not provide much propulsion. Heart remains a theme with variations, not a sonata. However, there is a coda. Snubbing a Fall League assignment, Xandy purchases duplicate sets of first class air tickets to a number of cities that lack major league baseball, resolving to pick one set, fly to that city, and send the duplicate ticket to Jenn. In an affecting close, he reaches an epiphany on the mutability of...