Country Hardball is quite a challenging work. It´s ambitious, maybe overly ambitious at times, when Weddle circles around those many characters´ lives (and Lord knows there are many) but somehow he does all of them justice. It takes patience, and plenty of that, and the occasional back and forth to remember who the hell this or that guy is, but there is a logic to the madness as Weddle connects all them to a bigger picture of a small Arkansas town where everything and everyone is intertwined. It can be confusing to keep track of what all their individual stories are, and how someone is connected to someone else.
The language is sparse, almost reluctant, quiet, intimate, but always eloquent in its simplicity and accuracy. Indeed I have the Cormac McCarthy feeling once in a while, but maybe more ´Child Of God´ than ´The Road´, as a very crude sort of comparison. Laid back, waiting for things to explode, while the stories within the novel unfold. While technically speaking those are short stories it counts most definitely as a novel, an unusual one, but a novel nevertheless. Stories that sometimes simply fade away, sometimes end with a punch, or an unexpected twist of events as questions are being answered no one wanted to ask.
The most common main character is Roy Alison, who made a terrible mistake in his youth, and now´s trying "to be good", and stay on the right side of the law. The stress is here on trying, as circumstances have it that he doesn´t always manage. After years in jail coming back to his old hometown, a working class community, and moving in with this grandmother he simply wants to fit in. A town that was never very much to begin with, starting a new life and get out of the circle of getting hold hostage by shit that happens. Which is not easy as everyone knows his story, and sure people let him know. His decision making is crude, following a path that might not be the best choice, but maybe the only one that makes sense at the given time.
Other characters take over a story or two, like Deputy McWilliams who understands the people and their struggles better than everyone, just to be left behind in others and then to drag on a cigarette at another place, at another time.
As the title already implies baseball does play a big role in the book, but as a way of showing how life itself takes its toll on everyone. Which also holds together the community as a glue. That it isn´t really about baseball works great for me, as I have no idea about baseball, don´t care one bit about it and wouldn´t miss it when it´s gone.
Most remarkable in those stories is what is not there. The characters, and the town itself, defines themselves with what is absent, has been or lost. Husbands, wives, children or jobs and money where everyone and everything is corrupted, ethically or financially. The people somehow trying to get by. Somehow it will turn out alright, but maybe it doesn´t . It´s a bleak book, but what it is not is without hopeful moments and glimpses of love.
What Weddle does not is bashing me over the head with exaggerated tales of crimes and poverty, but finds subtle ways to incorporate it to show how much everything is falling apart. And that´s where he is the most touching, the most interesting. When he quietly shows me around the town and I can make a picture for myself.
Country Hardball pretty much screams for a re-read. It made me think and feel unease at times. I am not sure why. The stories are not overly violent, there are no bogeymen around the corner, but because of that the actions are so real. Neither are the characters saints or sinners, good or bad, they simply are in a grey area in between.
An unexpected bill to pay, a job lost, a son getting killed in an accident, a woman hit by cancer just to get robbed by some guy eager for a quick buck. Those kinds of stories, plus the already "noir" setting just hit closer to home than if it would have been some kind of ... I don´t know, just pure crime I guess. That way it feels more real, more something I can relate to, and understand, even I´m an ocean away.
Weddle just pushes those forgotten characters in the middle of his stories, gives them a voice, a place to call home, and that´s where his greatest strength is. Sure, you kinda know they will face a hard life, no matter what is going to happen, but maybe things will turn out alright. And maybe it really will.