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Tuesday
Jun272017

Book Review: Called Out: A novel of base ball and America in 1908

Called Out: A novel of base ball and America in 1908. Floyd Sullivan. Amika Press, May 12, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 354 pages. 

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

Let us doff our baseball caps to Floyd Sullivan, for he has written an almost perfect historical novel. It is the best novel I have reviewed by a member of the Chicago Writers Association.

Called Out, set during the 1908 baseball season, is about America’s favorite pastime as it struggles for maturity. The author, like many Chicagoans, appears to be a passionate fan of the game. Although the novel is full of baseball lore, it is highly enjoyable for someone with no interest in sports. The characters are robust, the plot is brisk, and the historical details are vivid.

The plot is complex, driven by the period’s restrictive social conventions and the idiosyncrasies of baseball during this time–“one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history,” to quote the author. “Controversial, game-changing calls result in violent protests, riots, and death. The survival of the national pastime hangs in the balance.” In these impossible circumstances, Harry Pulliam, President of the National Baseball League, struggles with blackmail threats from disgruntled owners over his relationship with his lover, Ted. His secretary, Lenore, is caught up in both the deadly politics of baseball and Pulliam’s socially-driven sexual ambivalence. Ultimately, baseball survives, but Harry Pulliam doesn’t. 

In historical fiction, a writer inevitably presents a view of the past informed by the present. All authors struggle with how much to open the aperture, and no one gets it exactly right. Sullivan comes close.

In one particularly striking section, Ring Lardner–the sports writer who will later become a popular author–takes Harry Pulliam for a visit to the Everleigh Club, the legendary Chicago brothel. In a clever bit of fancy, Sullivan imagines how the sisters professionally handle a homosexual client who has turned up in their strictly heterosexual bawdy house. This masterful interlude highlights what may be the novel’s only (and very minor) flaw: the ease with which some of the team owners cast aspersions on Pulliam’s relationship with Ted might be read as reflecting a conversance with sexuality from a much later era.

Sullivan has written two works of non-fiction, but this is his first novel. It is an accomplished book, and we must hope for more fiction from Mr. Sullivan about baseball or anything else. If this reviewer can be excused the obvious baseball metaphor, Called Out is a home run at the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and the bases loaded.

 

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