- Curveball at the Crossroads by Michael Lortz
Most scholars of baseball literature agree that serious adult fiction, books with more complex characters and story arcs than found in the early twentieth-century “Baseball Joe” books by Lester Chadwick, began in 1952 with Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. By the end of that decade Mark Harris had published three of his four Henry Wiggen novels, including Bang the Drum Slowly. While some authors wrote the occasional baseball novel, it was not until Canadian writer W. P. Kinsella published Shoeless Joe in 1982 that an author became a preeminent writer of baseball fiction. More recently, writers like David James Duncan (The Brothers K) and Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) have released baseball novels to great acclaim, but neither has continued in the genre. Now, however, Michael Lortz’s debut novel provides readers with a new name in baseball fiction: JaMark Reliford.
Reliford’s name is known far and wide for his pitching streak. He plans to get out of his podunkville hometown of Rosedale, Mississippi, by way of baseball. JaMark is starry eyed with fame as opponents step up to the plate in fear, and his fans are always cheering.
But after a career-ending shoulder injury, JaMark leaves home without a purpose. He wanders along a path in solitude and drinks his way to a literal and proverbial crossroad in rural Mississippi. In his hopelessness an ominous figure approaches him and offers a tantalizing bargain. The figure offers guaranteed fame and success if JaMark will sign over his soul. JaMark, in his inebriated state, must choose what he values most. He soon discovers this decision will define the rest of his life. [End Page 141]
Curveball at the Crossroads is a quick read that blends a familiar Faustian story arc with sports fiction. Detailed accounts of JaMark’s games and stats will transport baseball fans to the scene, but all readers will be compelled by first-time author Michael Lortz’s character-driven plot. Lortz uses dramatic stakes for his characters and a dry sense of humor to keep the reader entertained. He pays close attention to developing his characters, with adjectives and other descriptors woven within each moment of dialogue. The brief chapters and simple language keep the story moving toward the final swing. This page-turner adds a supernatural aspect to the idea of flash-in-the-pan athletes and keeps the reader wanting to know more.
True to baseball fiction in the style of Kinsella, Lortz juxtaposes a detailed and realistic account of a baseball player’s life with magical realism to accentuate the similarities between the concept of baseball and the nature of life. Lortz reveals the humanity of JaMark and the characters surrounding him through conflicting decisions of loyalty, religion, morality, family, and love. As JaMark uses unnatural means to get back on track, he compromises everything he loves and values outside of sports, as many athletes do. Despite the struggle the story is ultimately about a young man who must reconcile with his past for the sake of his future in hopes of a second chance.