Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stephen King's Blockade Billy

So I got up yesterday morning to the news that Stephen King has a new novella coming from Cemetery Dance in just a few weeks. As word pinballed around message-board land, the doorbell rang. No one was there when I answered it -- just a FedEx package waiting on the porch.

From Cemetery Dance. With an advance copy of a forthcoming book inside. Yep, a little something called Blockade Billy by Stephen King.

They say timing is everything, and I can't argue with that. I cracked the covers, intending only to take a quick dip, and was quickly sucked in. As often happens with King, it was the voice that did it. And this particular voice belongs to George "Granny" Grantham, a geriatric baseball hand who's spinning a yarn to a guy named King about the days when he was the third-base coach for a forgotten team called the New Jersey Titans. The tale itself involves one William "Blockade Billy" Blakely, a strange kid who comes out of nowhere as a last-minute replacement for the Titans' busted-up pair of catchers. "I'll tell you about Billy Blakely," Grantham says, "Awful story, of course, but those are the ones that last the longest."

I don't know if I quite agree with that -- the tale that follows whips by like a big-league fastball, sure and strong. Or to put it another way: there's plenty of baseball here. Depending on the reader, that can be a plus or a minus. Writing a good baseball scene is tough; writing one that can appeal to non-fans is almost impossible. But King does a hell of a job with the ballpark scenes in Blockade Billy, capturing action, emotion, and a sense of a bygone era in a way that'll make readers jonesing for gametime want it just a little bit more. I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I was completely caught up in those scenes, too.

I'm sure that most reviews for Blockade Billy will focus on King's love of baseball. Of course, the game is the canvas for this novella. For my money there's also a love of the good old dark stuff at work here, and maybe just a little bit of the raw deal brand of characterization you'd find in the work of Rod Serling way back when. But at its climax, Blockade Billy roots more in the neighborhood of Alfred Hitchcock Presents than The Twilight Zone -- with maybe a little Tales from the Crypt thrown in. Fact is, I could easily picture the final brutal scene as a series of Jack "Foul Play!" Davis comic book panels, creepy and heavy on the shadows.

Most of all, King displays a real love of good old-fashioned storytelling in these pages. The kind that belonged to the yarn-spinner, the guy who's been there and done that. That's a form often forgotten in today's world of smirky wiseguy literature, but not here. Blockade Billy has an honesty and rhythm and drive all its own. Plenty of heart, too. That's cause for celebration -- and then some.