Baseball exerts a particular fascination on the literary imagination: A lone man with a bat stands at home plate wanting only to get back home again, the three bases stretched out before him, impossibly. It is the fearful symmetry of the game, its epic, nearly Odyssean shape, that can make it seem to the writer – to some of us anyway – less a sport than a stage upon which struggles take place on a mythic, cosmic level.
Among those writers who have most successfully explored the mythic dimensions of the game must be counted Canadian W.P. Kinsella, who has published 40 or so baseball short stories and novels. The best known of these, the novel Shoeless Joe, won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1982 and was adapted into the blockbuster film Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner.
An incredibly productive writer for most of his life, Kinsella stopped writing fiction abruptly in 1997 after being struck by a car while out walking. After the accident, he found himself unable to concentrate sufficiently to write fiction. Now, at last, he steps back into the batter’s box with Butterfly Winter, a novel that is unmistakably his in both conception and execution.
Butterfly Winter tells the story of twin brothers, Julian and Esteban Pimental, who seem to have actually played catch in their mother’s womb. As fate would have it, one is a born pitcher, the other a born catcher. “The babies slept at opposite ends of their crib,” the reader is told, “each in their accustomed positions: Julio as if he had just delivered a sidearm curve, Esteban as if he had just caught one.”
Upon exiting the womb, the brothers find themselves thrown unceremoniously into a world that seeks to pry apart handsome Julio, “perhaps the greatest pitcher ever to play in the Major Leagues,” from his brooding brother, “an average catcher and a dismal hitter.” This would be easily done, if not for the fact that Julio can throw only to the mediocre Esteban. “If I am not catching him,” Esteban explains, “Julio throws balls halfway up the backstop, or sometimes behind the batter, or Julio will deliver a sweet batting-practice pitch across the plate for the batter to wallop wherever he chooses.”
The story that ensues from this set-up is full of magical and strange plot twists that are told to the reader via the competing and sometimes contradictory voices of two unreliable narrators, a mysterious Wizard and a Gringo Journalist, both of whom sound a lot like Kinsella. The plot is confusing and hard to follow at times, made more so by virtue of the fact that most of it takes place in the fictional Caribbean country of Courteguay, “a tiny landlocked country nestled like a snail between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, bordered by both, in the shape of the moon of a fingernail, and not much larger.” This is a surreal landscape where anything can happen. “I must warn you that the boundaries here are different,” the Wizard tells the Gringo Journalist near the beginning of the novel. “Never forget that. Never be surprised.”
Like Shoeless Joe, Butterfly Winter started off as a short story and it often seems like one still, full of glittering images and witty asides, but lacking the cohesiveness of a novel. Still, in reading it we are reminded of Kinsella’s intelligence and verbal facility, and of the particular way his imagination is able to transfigure baseball into transcendence. It is recognizably the voice of a master who speaks through these pages.
“During a baseball game,” the Wizard says, extolling the virtues of the game, “whatever torment is raking the soul is put aside, forgotten. The spectator goes home refreshed; it is like he spent an afternoon beside a clear brook, birds singing, sun shining, flowers blooming.”
The same thing might be said of this novel.
Steven Hayward teaches in the English department at Colorado College. His most recent novel is Don't Be Afraid.