A Novel

By Mick Foley

Knopf. 302 pp. $23.95

Do you know how sometimes you find yourself taking in a Shakespeare play -- the urge for self-improvement once again having come upon you -- and the first 15 minutes scramble your brain? They're speaking English up there on the stage, you know they are, you just can't process it, it doesn't come through.

For 50 pages or so, reading "Scooter" was like that for me. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. That's because "Scooter" is written by a professional wrestler, and it's all about New York baseball, and I don't have a clue.

Yes, I know about Joe DiMaggio, and I've heard of the Bronx, who hasn't? But trying to imagine a young Irish cop who, for instance, hates New York city planner Robert Moses so much that he won't drive on any of Moses's roads took a fair leap of faith. It was worth it, though. "Scooter," once you get through those first 50 pages of rough, vernacular, testosterone-soaked argot, is a very entertaining, warmhearted novel. And at least half of the population -- the half who grew up collecting baseball cards -- should like it a lot.

Young Scooter, the narrator, grows up the son of that Irish cop, who is a passionate Yankees fan and hater of Robert Moses and anything to do with the Mets. Scooter's grandfather -- or is he? -- used to be a fireman but was hideously burned on the job and lives alone in a tiny apartment. Scooter's mom is a compulsive shopper who spends all of her time on the Concourse with her spoiled little daughter, Patty.

Violence and misfortune dog this family, but it's all seen through the lens of baseball. When Scooter is 4, he and his dad stand in line for a signed ball from DiMaggio. In the grip of one of his own tantrums, the great man bleeds on the ball -- a fateful omen that foreshadows the rest of the book. When Scooter is 9, his father is lured, much against his better judgment, into taking his son out to Shea Stadium, where Willie McCovey hits a homer, then rolls his bat over to Scooter. But his dad can't bear to look at the thing and subjects his son to endless, drunken lectures about its innate evil.

When Scooter is close to hitting his own home run in a Little League game, his dad crashes the game and spoils it for him. It's hard for the son to forgive his father. Meanwhile their Bronx world is breaking down. Blacks and Puerto Ricans are pouring in; whites are pouring out. Scooter's mom keeps nagging his dad to move, which he won't do. The Concourse is getting rattier and rattier; Scooter's dad is drinking more and more. The stage is set for disaster.

Scooter's dad works as a cop at an anti-Vietnam War rally (this in 1969, when the kid is 9), and gets seriously bonked on the head. Then, during the fifth game of the World Series, Dad, watching it on TV at home with his family, drinks way too much and slurs, "If the goddamn Mets win this thing, I'm gonna put a bullet through this screen." He does more than that. He puts one through Scooter, rendering his son a cripple. Four years later, in another family melee, Dad destroys the house, blams his daughter over the head with a baseball bat, and his son, using his own McCovey bat, shatters his father's knee. More bad things happen that evening. Scooter's mom abandons the family. And the fun -- or the plot -- hasn't even begun yet!

All this occurs in the first half of the book, and the tone, far from being sad or tragic, is almost disorientingly jaunty. That's when you remember that Mick Foley is a wrestler by trade. Raymond Chandler used to say that when things got dull in his novels, he'd have a man walk through the door with a gun in his hand. Foley has a different view of the world -- a BAM-SPLAT-AARGH take on things. Nothing seems personal in all this violence; it's just another way of punctuating the plot.

Poor Scooter, by the end of this tale, will have taken more hard knocks than Nathanael West's hapless antihero in "A Cool Million." Scooter is bashed and smashed and gouged and smashed again. One particular nemesis is the big brother of his first Puerto Rican girlfriend; another is a raving bully of a high school baseball player who does awful things to Scooter's sister.

But Scooter pulls through! He loves his life and pursues his love-hate fling with the game of baseball. This is a very tall tale. (At least I hope this isn't Foley's idea of realism.) It's fun to read, full of chunks of New York history, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to that dreaded Moses and the racial transformation of the Bronx. It's carefree and lively and violent, and comes, of course, with a crash course in America's historic pastime.