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By 10.23.09

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Mechaniks, by Andrew Bonazelli
(McCarren Publishing, 172 pages, $14.99)

"Sports are not complicated in their objectives," George Will writes in his paean to baseball, Men at Work, "but in execution they have layers of complexities and nuance."

So it is with Andrew Bonazelli's impressive, affecting debut novel, Mechaniks, the story of Heath Hunter, a rising minor league pitching wunderkind who, much to his dismay, discovers the talent he believed would provide a measure of peace and independence to his life has become a counterintuitive, even deadly liability.

While Will's Men at Work exalts a baseball that, even as "the continents shift," renews itself "constantly as youth comes knocking at the door, and in renewal it becomes better," Mechaniks extends its ruminations to those once-promising players who, thanks to relative agedness or not-quite-exceptional-enough aptitude, watch dreams close enough to touch be ushered to the back exit. Bonazelli brings to life a plausible vision of extreme behavior such monumental disappointment could engender in some, and, ultimately, in the book’s denouement, wrestles with the contradictory natures of corporeal and ethereal forgiveness in a situation where, tragically, never the twain shall meet.

Spoilers are never more damnable than when undermining a truly unpredictable, satisfying piece of work. The reading experience will not, however, be too badly compromised by revealing that jealousy, blackmail, petty aggrieved heroes of yore, intrigue, illusion, and unprovoked acts of violence bespeckle the plot of Mechaniks.

This last is not an entirely original conceit in baseball novels, of course. Recall Bernard Malamud humbling the cocksure Roy Hobbs early on in The Natural via the psychotic vixen Harriet Bird, who guns the pitcher down after he reaffirms his hubristic claim that one day soon when he walked down the street people would say, "There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game."

Nevertheless, the presentation -- picture Bull Durham re-imagined by a Mean Streets-era Martin Scorsese -- is strikingly different in tone, execution and outcome -- and not simply because there is no Wonderboy. Bonazelli's ability to unearth the light in his most malevolent character and the darkness in his most beneficent without ever sinking into the quagmire of moral relativism is as much a mark of his command and flair as the lyrical noir narrative that eschews the predictable rote-ness that has long plagued the subgenre.

Take, for example, this passage in which Hunter's latent emotional turmoil materializes in front of fans:

Heath had K'd two on gutsy full-count curves, walked one and given up two bloopers on 0-2 counts. These boys, like everyone else, didn't have a clue. Then their bulldog of a catcher belted a hanger down the line, clearing the bases. It was the first big, decisive, turn-the-sonofabitch-around hit the kid had yielded in his pro career. A schoolgirl who just lost her teddy would have responded more sensibly. Heath plunked the next man right on the elbow, buckling him like an accordion, and the boo birds let him have it. So he took the tug of war to a new low, abandoning his out pitches altogether and fixing to blow everyone away with two-seamers. 

Beast meet Beauty.

MECHANIKS OPENS IN A Mexican town, circa 1996. A broken and homeless man -- "His body had filed for annulment. Court was going to be a mess" -- is struggling to panhandle enough money to skedaddle north when a couple American heavies show up. You're gonna pay for what you done. They put him down like a dog.

Then we're back in 1962 on the Double-A baseball circuit, tugging at the thread of a 30-years-hence mystery. Crowds revel in witnessing 19-year-old southpaw Heath Hunter, "aw-shuckin' bumpkin," trade in "his learner's permit for the real thing and [stake] his first claim to being the name, the phenomenon, the sensation, the chosen one that any baseball fan worth a damn hoped and prayed they'd see in their lifetimes." The hitters fall. The pitcher's cache rises. And we quickly learn that neither the crowd nor Hunter is paying enough attention to the left behind, the ones destined to till on the farm team and no further.

In fairness, those who seek to harm or manipulate Hunter for their own ends also fail to recognize how little sway they hold over the fire they set -- or, to (stubbornly) mix metaphors, how deep still waters indeed run. An attack meant to end Hunter's career instead twists and turns and finally propels it forward, paradoxically liberating Hunter from polite strictures which might otherwise have restrained his rise even while the joie de vivre that should well up out of massive success is suffocated.

When Hunter unleashes a cruel "brushback baroque" on hitters ("Every beanball, every reaper-scythe curve, and every perfectly placed change was as intentional as a brushstroke on the Sistine Chapel") it goes unchallenged. "Nobody wanted to be the rat bastard who charged Heath Hunter, the picture of innocence and virtue, who had been through more tribulations than any human being who ever walked the earth." He's untouchable, only not in any way that matters. Hunter excels, enters the majors, wins award after award, trophy after trophy, falls in love with a girl who lives in a home fashioned from an old freighter. But he can enjoy none of it, so soiled is it by blackmail and secrets and lies right up until the day, desperate for a way out, Hunter winds up in a tool shed, "his trembling right hand [raising] the rock over his left, which was something Thor would never do, that is to say, Samson would not raise clippers…"

Still Hunter finds no release, sliding further into a damnation not of his own making. The shocking climax that will bring us to Mexico has begun…

"YOU THINK ANYONE EVER really up and quits doing the wrong thing on their own?" an antagonist asks Hunter early on in Mechaniks, when hope still has a discernible pulse. At the time the answer appears ambiguous, but as the novel progresses one of his tormentors turns to religion and works to right the wrongs of his past. We see it answered in the affirmative. Alas, his question proves not to be the only pertinent one. A corresponding query might be, Can they quit before the sin becomes unforgivable?

It is not, one presumes, an exact science.

By novel's end several of Hunter's real and imagined interlocutors pay an irrevocable price, yet none of this redeems Hunter or the life that once held so much promise. "It was never suggested that Heath Hunter go to hell…" Bonazelli writes. "Even at the end, most people knew redundant when they saw it."

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