WAITING FOR TEDDY WILLIAMS
By Howard Frank Mosher. Houghton Mifflin. 280 pp. $24.
Having waited in vain for a World Series championship since 1918, the curse-bound fans of the Boston Red Sox will resort to just about anything to bring luck to the Olde Towne Team -- and that seems to go for Howard Frank Mosher as well. A novelist who has tilled his own New England Yoknapatawpha in eight previous works of fiction set mostly in northern Vermont, Mosher brings the good (and not so good) folks of Kingdom County into the midst of a Red Sox pennant chase in Waiting for Teddy Williams.
You need to know, first off, that Mosher is not trying to revive the actual Ted Williams, who was the greatest Red Sox player of all and whose head and body (separately) are now frozen solid in Arizona. That would be too easy.
What he's up to is nothing less than banishing the Curse of the Bambino.
As every baseball fan knows, a year after the Red Sox won their last title, owner Harry Frazee sold his best player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. Since then, the Yankees have won the World Series 26 times while the Red Sox and their loyal but fatalistic fans are still waiting.
A sign outside Mosher's fictional Kingdom Common labels the town the "heart of the Red Sox nation." As young Ethan "E.A." Allen -- a descendant, with a few colorful detours, of the original Green Mountain rebel himself -- walks through the baseball-mad village, he hears the Red Sox on every radio. He's grown up with their saga of endless futility, embodied by his rifle-toting grandmother, who took to a wheelchair in 1978 after Bucky Dent's home run for the hated Yankees killed another season of hope for all New England.
E.A. is a red-haired sprite who doesn't go to school. Instead, he gets his education from his single mom, a photogenic fireball named Gypsy Lee Allen. Gypsy, who writes country songs about her hard-luck life, is repeatedly hauled into court on flimsy pretexts by an officious and inept local constable. She supports herself and her son by providing private entertainment -- apparently, posing in the buff -- for local hypocrites like a fundamentalist preacher and a nasty caricature of a neighbor named Devil Dan, who rips up the hills with his 60-ton bulldozer.
There are plenty of other weirdos as well, including a pair of bullies, Orton and Norton Horton, and the porch-sitting Kinneson brothers, Early and Late. You half expect Larry, the doofus from the old "Newhart" TV show, to step forward and say, "This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl."
The main thread of the plot traces E.A.'s tentative steps toward manhood and, not incidentally, his growth as a ballplayer. Freed from the burdens of school, E.A. roams the hills on an endless idyll, talking baseball and chatting with his lone close friend, the Colonel -- a statue, no less, of Ethan Allen himself. (Why do so many baseball novels, from The Natural to Field of Dreams, resort to fantasy? Isn't there enough drama in the game itself?) Though made of bronze, the Colonel is something like the Stage Manager in "Our Town," representing the collective conscience and memory of Kingdom Common. He looks out for his young namesake, who is proving himself to be a decent little ballplayer, by telling him a Mysterious Stranger will enter his life and teach him the finer points of the game. This would be none other than onetime town-ball legend E.W. Williams, who of course goes by Teddy.
"There was something forbidding about the big, laconic, watchful stranger who seemed to appear out of nowhere," Mosher writes, lathering on the bathos. "An air of something almost dangerous hung about him." He smokes Luckies and swigs from a bottle of cheap booze, but it's clear that, among other secrets in his tortured past, he's learned a lot about baseball. The short Vermont summers pass with the elusive Teddy schooling E.A. in the fundamentals, remaking him into a whip-armed, undersized pitcher who seems capable of performing miracles on the mound.
Mosher walks our hero through a few Odyssean trials and temptations while setting in motion a secondary plot that is, if anything, even harder to believe. The Red Sox, managed by the old-school, hunch-playing Legendary Spence -- think Casey Stengel mixed with Whitey Herzog -- unexpectedly find themselves in a pennant race, despite having an owner who openly plots against his team.
With this unlikely dream team -- which includes a pitcher resembling the eccentric, real-life Bill "Spaceman" Lee, emerging from a 10-year retirement -- Mosher's amiable little jeu de sport swerves out of control. At one point of egregious exaggeration, he even puts John Henry Williams, the real Teddy Ballgame's money-grubbing, cryogenics-happy son, in the Sox lineup. Not only was John Henry hopeless at his father's sport, but he had the bad timing to drop dead earlier this year at age 35.
The novel devolves into an unwieldy farrago that resembles a Southern gothic (with a worse climate) awkwardly joined with "Angels in the Outfield" and "Major League." Its story moves swiftly and has a certain sweetness, but the characters and plot are exasperatingly predictable, like a pitcher who telegraphs his curveball.
Last year, in his delightfully picaresque The True Account, Mosher sent a quixotic Vermont knight errant on an overland journey to the Pacific just ahead of those bumbling pikers, Lewis and Clark. But this time, in trying to exorcise the ghosts that haunt the Red Sox, he's really gone too far. *
Matt Schudel is an obituary writer for The Washington Post.