The same qualities that could well make the movie unbearablethe unruly hodgepodge of characters, the hand-me-down baseball-as-life metaphors, the boilerplate late-inning heroicsactually conspire to make Summerland an amusing, if not entirely satisfying, read. Chabon, fresh off the widely admired film version of his novel Wonder Boys and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, can now write his own ticket. He doesn't waste any time. Here he indulges a childhood obsession to match the comic book world of Kavalier and Claythe sport of baseball.
Chabon's improbable wonder boy, Ethan Feld, is a fairly well-adjusted kid, except when it comes to playing ball. At Summerland, the magically sun-drenched corner of otherwise sodden Clam Island, he plays the game mostly to appease his widower father, who cheers his son's every bobble, baserunning blunder and strikeout. A batted ball sails past Ethan, who is picking daisies out in right field, and it doesn't even register. "He was dimly aware of the other players chattering,pounding their gloves, teasing or encouraging each other, but he felt very far away from it all. He felt like the one balloon at a birthday party that comes loose from a lawn chair and floats off into the sky," writes Chabon, who has a truly marvelous feel for small descriptive moments. "A baseball landed nearby, and rolled away toward the fence at the edge of the field, as if it had someplace important to get to. Later it turned out that Ethan was supposed to have caught that ball."
Ethan's dad is something of a self-taught scientific genius, and his ingenuity attracts the attention of one Rob Padfoot, who turns out to be an accomplice of CoyoteChabon's rather fallible version of the devil himself. Mr. Feld is kidnapped and whisked off to an alternate plane, a living hell where Coyote is scheming to bring on the final calamitous inning of the world as we (and the various baseball-playing crossbreeds) know it.
Certainly young readers will delight in the author's masterful use of imagery, whatever they make of the story. When a band of marauding werewolves thunders past Ethan's hiding place, the author fully engages the audience's senses: "The yipping grew louder, and more joyous," Chabon writes, "and Ethan saw that the creatures had the shapes of men, and the heads of wolves, and the next moment he could smell their coats, rancid and sweet, a smell like the inside of your lunchbox at the end of a warm afternoon."
In creating Summerland, Chabon plunders the standard young boy's book (and video) library, from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to the requisite inspirational baseball yarnssuch as Bernard Malamud's The Natural and W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. And he throws in several supernatural Harry Potter–style incidents for good measure. Clearly he wants in on the burgeoning big business of entertainment for kids.
Baseball, as we have heard countless times before, really does lend itself as an all-purpose allegory. The author makes the most of it, especially near the end of the book, when brave Ethan confronts an apparition that has tricked him into believing that he and his long-dead mother are reuniting.
"The sweetness of that bitter memory, of her embrace, of holding her again and hearing her voice, filled his heart so full that all the old healed places in it were broken all over again," Chabon writes in a climactic passage that makes all his far-flung fancies seem perfectly groomed for this realization. "And in that moment he feltfor the first time that optimistic and cheerful boy allowed himself to feelhow badly made life was, how flawed. No matter how richly furnished you made it, with all the noise and variety of Something, Nothing always found a way in, seeped through the cracks and patches. Mr. Feld was right; life was like baseball, filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches, a game in which even champions lost almost as often as they won, and even the best hitters were put out seventy percent of the time. Coyote was right to want to wipe it out, to call the whole sad thing on account of darkness."
That's not how the story ends, of course. Kids' tales can't end in desolation. Not while there are movies to be made.
It's worth wondering whether Summerland's baseball fixation might land with a thud among contemporary schoolchildren, like that high fly ball that eluded not just Ethan's grasp but his attention, too. The real-life major leagues have made a concerted effort in recent years to rebuild interest among young fans, but baseball is not America's favorite pastime the way it was, say, fifty years ago.
With Summerland, Chabon sometimes seems to be offering up a lavish new marketing endorsement for the sport. "Errors ... well, they are a part of life, Ethan," Mr. Feld tells his son in the opening chapter of the book. "Fouls and penalties, generally speaking, are not. That's why baseball is more like life than other games." Baseball buffs young and oldand you can count this reviewer among themwill never grow tired of such poetic pronouncements.