The book: “Home, Away”
The author: A novel by Jeff Gillenkirk
The vital stats: Chin Music Press, 268 pages, $15
The pitch: Would a real major league pitcher walk away from a $40-million, six-year contract to try to straighten out the life of his teen-age son, who six years prior had cut him out of his life?
If only Jason Thibodeaux was that real person. He’d probably be our new favorite player.
Custody battles, alcohol and drug problems, juvenile detention center, run-ins with the cops, raw emotions … the stuff that real divorced parents deal with on a regular basis these days with children who rage against the machine, fight the system, and rarely win, is what holds this poignant story together.
The twist here is that it’s a Stanford-educated pitcher who tries to stay focused on a career in baseball pursuing his dream all while feeling guilty that he can’t be there on a regular basis for his son, Rafael, who continues to get pulled in different directions. Lord knows, Jason tries — even forcing Rafe to come with him to the park to do his home work in one of the locker room offices.
First-time novelist Gillenkirk’s choice to make the Thibodeaux a dad torn between the challenges of the big leagues and the bigger challenges of fatherhood creates a scenario that definitely would be a drawn-out drama by today’s media standards. Fittingly, Gillenkirk tries to insert that element by having a sports columnist advance the story each chapter – albeit, with pieces written by someone who’s far too smaltzy to really ever be hired by USA Today, as we’re led to believe.
The real-life struggles that divorced parents — especially single dads — have to endure if they’re really committed to trying to figure out the best way to raise a wild child come through all-too-painful here. No matter how much Thibodeaux tries to make up for the fact that his dad was rarely there for him as he worked in the oil fields makes you want this new dad to succeed, despite the odds.
Unfortunately, it all leads to a far more incredulous, unrealistic climax. It definitely won’t satisfy the baseball fan, but may get past someone who knows little to nothing about the sport. But, considering all that we’ve gone through to get this far – why not make it end this way.
How it goes down in the scorebook: Because novels can be such a personal journey for the author, it’s tougher for us to be critical of their efforts. Gillenkirk, for example, knows all about what it’s like to be a single dad, as he wrote this piece for fathermag.com (linked here). He comes from a place of knowledge, fear, trials and tribulations. For that, we applaud him. Deep down, this book works. Plus, it has a pretty cool cover.
Did you know: The origin of “chin music,” which the publisher takes as its name, goes way behind a baseball term, as they explain (linked here). Really? Mark Twain?
Also: Another shot at baseball fiction, try “The Man With Two Arms” by Billy Lombardo (Overlook Press, $24.95), reviewed here by James Bailey for BaseballAmerican.com (linked here)