Valerie Sayers’s idiosyncratic and brilliantly realized new novel, “The Powers,” opens in the summer of 1941, when Europe is swept up in war and the United States is swept up in baseball mania fueled by the hitting streak of the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio. The bravura opening chapter is narrated from DiMaggio’s perspective as he ducks out of the apartment before his brittle wife, Dottie, can argue with him. While she natters on in another room, he heads to the locker room at Yankee Stadium to prepare for the day’s game.
The facts suggest the un-American conclusion that DiMaggio was something of a mean-spirited lout, but in Sayers’s hands, he’s imbued with a rueful sympathy he seldom exhibited in real life. Her DiMaggio has morose visions, too. He’s the only one who knows the historic shape his new hitting streak will take. Not that he’s a mystic: “Sometimes he goes a little pazzu and thinks he has some kind of magic powers, some kind of hocus-pocus,” Sayers writes, “but he’s just very good at what he does — the best, he would venture, only you don’t want to come off as conceited.”
He certainly comes off that way to his teammates, historical figures Sayers brings wonderfully to life. And his fame fills the lives of a cast of fictional characters the author weaves into her story, foremost of whom is Babe O’Leary, who stands at the center of the novel’s plot. A stout Brooklyn grandmother and die-hard Yankees fan, Babe wasn’t inclined to like DiMaggio, “not because of his nationality, she’s bigger than that — but because he was so sullen and full of himself.” She’s since become obsessed, and she’s certain her obsession wields a supernatural power over the outcome of Yankee games: In 10 years, the Yankees have won 51 of the 61 games she’s attended, “which makes her winning percentage .836.”
Babe lives in Park Slope with her spineless widower son, Mickey, and her four granddaughters, of which 17-year-old spitfire Agnes is the only one she doesn’t find “unspeakably tiresome.” Grandmother and granddaughter are uncomfortably alike, except that baseball bores Agnes — “She couldn’t find her way to Ebbets Field if she had a police escort.” She has plenty else to think about: She’s in love with both her best friends, budding pacifist Joe D’Ambrosio and intellectual Bernie Keller. She’s also beginning to dream of a life for herself outside of Brooklyn, spurred by a meeting with photographer Walker Evans on a subway.
Through DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Pearl Harbor and the draft, Agnes’s personal and professional complications move the plot along, but the book belongs entirely to Babe. She’s been going to Yankee Stadium for 18 years, and her loyalty to the team is so pure that she at first turns down a ticket to see a game when the “subway Series” moves to Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, “a miniature ball field for miniature men.”She tells her son,“I cannot sit myself down among the — well, they’ve named themselves, haven’t they? The bums.” Like her hero, she has a no-nonsense way of seeing the future: “We’re going to have to go to war, but I won’t tolerate putting ribbons and bows on it,” she tells her family. “It was an ugly war last time, and it’s going to be an ugly war this time, too.” She’s a powerhouse character, unashamedly imperfect and instantly memorable, a baseball-loving Olive Kitteridge.
Although the book’s many little black-and-white photos are generally more distracting than entertaining (they undoubtedly sounded better in theory than they look on these pages), the prose has a distinctive, brutal elegance. The many vivid characters — over whose lives Babe looms like a game-day dirigible — breathe with authenticity, and the emotions at stake are grippingly real. The whole thing is so assuredly done that even Red Sox fans will be won over.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
By Valerie Sayers
TriQuarterly. 294 pp. $24.95