BENJAMIN DUNNE, the hero of this lively novel, is described by his son as "Mr. Average," and it's true he is an ordinary, unassuming man -- married, father of three children, owner of a small-town bookstore, and coach of his son's Pee Wee League baseball team. But when you give his life a closer look, you'll find that it's falling apart at about the same rate as the shabby, flapping baseball with which his ill-equipped team is forced to practice." 'It's still round,'" Benjamin says of the ball. "'Keep throwing.'" He might say the same of his life: he continues to trudge through it, although his wife is undergoing some mysterious personal crisis, his son has truned sullen and rebellious, one daughter is suffering from irrational fears, and his bookstore has magically transformed itself into a T-shirt store. Above all, his baseball team is a disaster. The players are inept, accidentprone, and hostile to Benjamin. They seem united in a conspiracy to make him fling up his hands and resign.
I hesitate to mention how much of the fabric of this novel is formed by baseball, for fear of discouraging the nonathletic reader. I'm not athletic myself, although I have a sneaking fondness for baseball. I prefer it to most other sports for several reasons: it's as easy to encompass visually as Parcheesi; it's not violent (though that can't always be said for the game in this book); and in the hands of the right people, it can involve as much strategy as chess. So as a closet fan, I was hopeful that I would at least dimly comprehend the events in Stealing Home . The surprise was that the baseball scenes were the most enjoyable parts of the book -- brightly written, often very funny, and so vivid that I sometimes felt I was watching them, rather than reading about them.
The boys on Benjamin's team play in near-rags, largely as an act of spite because their sponsor is withholding their uniforms. Their fat pitcher, Meryl, throws the umpires into confusion when he catches a ball in the apronlike front of his oversized shirt. There's another unorthodox out when the first baseman, bending down to roll up his jeans, ricochets a ball off his skull and into a second player's mitt. This Chaplinesque style of baseball is an effective motif for a book about a man who is losing control of his life -- particularly when it's combined with an unethical umpire, a set of fans ready to do physical battle if the occasion calls for it, and the increasingly Machiavellian maneuvers of Benjamin himself as he begins to feel that "' it doesn't seem to matter how you play the game, but whether you win or lose.'"
Interspersed with the baseball scenes are italicized sections focusing on one or another person in Benjamin's private world -- most often his wife Marilyn or his son Bobo, telling their sides of the story in their own direct and earnest vioces. They cannot be held to blame, it turns out, for the distress they bring to Benjamin; they're as confused by the strains of personal relationships as he is. In fact, except for the team's sponsor and the unethical umpire -- both genuine, old-fashioned villains -- there are no bad people in this book. Everything is tinged with a true-to-life inconclusiveness.
If Stealing Home has a flaw, it's that what happens is often more carefully described than who it happens to. There's a scarcity of those gritty details that make people physically visible to us, that separate them from the generalities of "Pubescent Son," "Seductive Divorcee," "Suburban House-wife in Mid-Life Crisis." Women, in particular, are described from a considerable distance. But Benjamin himself is undeniably real: in his case, at least, the sum of his actions allows us to infer the man behind them. He has an endearing stubbornness. His down-to-earth, undramatic philosophy is perhaps best revealed in the advice he gives his wife, who is about to embark on a harebrained business enterprise that seems doomed to failure: "'Don't expect the project to succeed and don't expect it to collapse... just keep doing what you're doing... sooner or later you'll be sure that it'll work, or sure that it won't.'"
Ultimately, Philip O'Connor's engaging novel seems to be saying, it may not even be whether you win or lose that matters, but simply whether you manage to keep on going.