(Image: Glen Orbik, Desert Isle Design via Scribner / Cemetery Dance Publications)
It’s amazing the quick degradation from salivating over the start of Spring Training baseball to saying: “Ugh, I’m ready for the games to count already.” To mediate my exhibition-season nausea, I read the cute little novella Blockade Billy by Stephen King, published back in 2010. Portland, Maine native King needs no introduction, of course. His works have sold over 300 million copies and his stories turned into countless movies and TV shows. I saw the original film Carrie, from 1976, at my local microcinema recently, and it still excels. I’ve been a fan of King for many years, not necessarily because I think he’s the creator of great literature, but because his writing is fun and entertaining. Blockade Billy, I must say, is on the lower end of the totem pole for me.
Baseball has been an element in King’s works for a long time, as it is an element for most American authors, whether they include it explicitly in their creations or not. Blockade Billy is King’s first overt baseball story, as far as I know or remember. Its content concerns a fictional baseball team called the New Jersey Titans during the 1957 season.
Playing in the American League, the Titans lose their catchers before the season starts and are forced to rely on their farm system. William Blakely is called up from the Iowa team jokingly referred to by Titans players and coaches as the Davenport “Cornholers.” So begins the major league odyssey of “Blockade Billy,” a catcher so dense that he basically reflects what other folks say to him. Despite a few marbles rolling loose upstairs, Billy becomes a sensation for his hard-nosed play. As Granny, the old-man narrator, tells King within the story: “The game was played hard in those days, Mr. King, with plenty of fuck-you.”
King, as a character within the story, just listens and records what Granny says about Billy and the Titans’ season. King, the writer of the story, effectively captures the tone and spirit of an old-timey, perhaps lost baseball jargon and speaking style. The narrator sounds like he could’ve been a coach on the Titans back in ’57. Sometimes it feels a little forced, though, particularly when the narrator crashes through with particularly punchy lines. Granny warns Billy not to change the signs for a particularly stubborn pitcher: “Not unless you want your pecker and asshole to change places after the game, that is.” Nevertheless, that’s sort of King’s style, isn’t it? A little bit of a lost American language from the pre-1960s and a goodly sized dose of vulgarity to boot.
Blockade Billy is about 80 pages long in a neat hardcover measuring about five by seven inches. Also included is “Morality,” a bonus story. Really, there’s nothing terribly wrong with Blockade Billy; it’s written well enough. The tale of Billy and his exploits on the field is well articulated and I will probably long remember the baseball scenes described in the book. My main complaint comes with the inevitable plot twist. It’s probably presumptuous, but I think I could have written something like this myself. I started doing so in the doldrums of January with Flickers of Atwater, Part 1 and 2. Reading that now, it’s clearly a King-like tale of murder and deceit. It echoes a King story from back in 1982, the novella called The Body which was adapted into the classic film Stand by Me.
My criticism is not that Blockade Billy is an inconsequential trifle, which it is, but rather that it seems a little hurried and tossed off by the writer himself, with an ending that feels little more than taped on with a vacant inspiration. I wanted a little more from King on this one. Not a big deal, because it’s an experimental piece for King and the payoff is more in the exercise than the ultimate result. But that’s my take on it. I won’t read it again anytime soon but I’ll probably not forget it either. As much as I quibble about his stuff sometimes, King is a great writer and he knows how to make images stick in your head.
It’s interesting that the story is set in 1957, too. The Yanks-Braves Series that year, won by Milwaukee, is mentioned, as is County Stadium. That lends a little shine for readers who are fans of the Brewers or Milwaukee Braves. King does a great job setting up the baseball action in the text, and Granny’s a pretty funny guy as the narrator. But the plot of Blockade Billy falls short. Still, it won’t take more than an hour or two to read it through, and at that King isn’t asking for much of your time.
Some members of my family and I received hardcover editions of Blockade Billy for Christmas some years ago and I ended up with an unwanted extra copy. If you’d like it, email me at the blog (firstname.lastname@example.org). The first requester will receive it via snail mail.