Paul Hemphill must have had a grand time inventing his first novel, "Long Gone." A baseball novel, it follows the Graceville Oilers in their chase for the 1956 pennant in the Class D Alabama-Florida League.
Since baseball always opens the door to miracles, and since the Alabama-Florida League is the last place anyone would expect a miracle, Hemphill has the makings of a plot. Can the Oilers, owned by the Rev. Q. Talmadge Ramey, a homosexual who drinks moonshine from a teacup while selling Magic Prayer Cloths over radio station WGOD, and managed by Cecil "Stud" Cantrell, ex-Marine and ex-Yankee prospect, now a lecher and a boozer who can still whale a hardball, overtake the classy Dothan Cardinals and win the flag?
What will happen when Stud plays his black catcher, a powerhouse named Joe Louis Brown? "Niggers got rights too," says Stud, "especially if they can hit." So he christens his slugger Jose Guitterez Brown, teaches him a few words of Spanish, and hopes that the local Klan will believe that he just stepped off a banana boat.
Meanwhile, Stud has kidnapped a teen-aged beauty in short shorts and a halter. Instead of calling the law on him, Dixie Lee Box -- for that's her name -- makes herself right at home in the hotel room littered with empty bottles and dirty clothes, where the walls are covered with cracked 8 x 10 glossies of Stud in action. Does this romance, conceived in the back seat of the Oilers' bus and continued in the Boom-Boom Room of the Panhandle Hotel, have a chance?
And what about Jamie Weeks, another teen-ager, a virgin second baseman who hitchhikes down from Birmingham to try out for the Oilers? Will he make the team? Will he make Cissy Bowman, the nice girl who writes him coy postcards? Will he make the pretty widow who runs the boarding house? Will he make the prostitute whom Stud and Dixie pick out for him in a motel in Panama City?
There's plenty going on in the short novel, and Hemphill keeps the narrative hurtling forward. The dim and shabby ballparks, the burger joints and honky-tonks, the hot and buggy Southern towns -- these are the only stops, and Hemphill knows his territory. He knows the histories of the hopefuls and the has-beens, the waitresses, the widow, the washed-up sports writer, the louts at the country clubs. Here's the sad and funny story of a woman named Wiregrass, the prostitute Stud auditions for Jamie.
Wiregrass gave her vague autobiography: 19; off a farm near Two Eggs, Florida; mother of two kinds; "the wildest f. . . on the Gulf Coast"; a former high school cheerleader now sharing a trailer with a used car salesman who had a wife and six kids of his own. "Ralph's real sweet, though," she said. "He even teaches Sunday school over at Laguna Beach."
In these capsule biographies -- and the novel is studded with them -- Hemphill is brief, quick and right on target. He obviously delighted in the invention of them, just as he delighted in the invention of names for his places and characters, and his delight is infectious.
Yet with all this activity, all these characters, all these names and places, "Long Gone" is more like a pre-game show than like the game itself. The band plays, the players are introduced, the crowd cheers and waits expectantly -- and the game, when the opening pitch is finally thrown after all the fanfare, is a letdown.
Hemphill's characters are almost always more interesting by themselves than in relation to others, which is to say that he creates more interest in them than they command on their own. I found myself wanting to read what he had to say about them, not what they had to say for themselves. They don't change much in the course of the book, at least not in surprising ways. The dramatic scenes, when the characters have to face one another, are the flattest scenes in the book.
It may be that the author simply enjoyed himself too much when he invented "Long Gone." At some point a novel begins to talk back to its writer. It begins to resist, even to reject the writer's choicest inventions the way a body rejects a transplanted organ. Like a body, or to be less dire about this, like a baseball game, it knows its own needs. If the writer gets enough resistance, and if he is lucky, he may discover those needs, and in the process he may surpass the inventions of his own devising.
Hemphill bullied "Long Gone" into shape. I wish he'd let the novel put up more of a fight.