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Book Review: The Clubhouse Thief

The Clubhouse ThiefJames Janko. New Issues Poetry & Prose, January 16, 2018, Trade Paperback, 308 pages.

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

Reading The Clubhouse Thief is akin to listening to a Gustav Mahler symphony. Mahler’s symphonies have broad parallels to real life in the world; they meditate on nature, politics, religion, joy, death, suffering, identity, poetry, and literature. Mr. Janko’s novel has the same type of broad parallels, using baseball as his modus operandi.

Baseball is seen by some as a metaphor for life. The game deals with character, resilience, team chemistry, courage, and discipline. It also deals with confronting defeat and learning to overcome frustration, to be confident and remain optimistic, and that with hard work and effort one can eventually become a winner. Since baseball was called the national pastime as early as 1856, it has been connected to all that is great and glorious in the American character. However, the nation’s affinity for the game hasn’t always been good for the nation.

Blacks did not get their chance to play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Janko incorporates current political and civil rights issues into his story with the character of Khadijah Jamil, a Muslim woman from Chicago’s South Side who is running against a Donald Trump-like Republican, President Michael J. Trent, who’s campaigning for re-election. Being Muslim and black, she runs into anti-Muslim and anti-black hate groups who are encouraged by Trent and his minions. Another character is Hector Jesus Mijango Cruz, an openly gay slugger who runs into problems due to his sexual orientation.

Then there are the major stars of the Cubs, Johnny Stompiano, Azzy Azzam, and Jesus Mijango Cruz who, for various reasons, support Jamil’s candidacy, which intrigues and troubles the bench coach, manager, and team management. In reality, the melding of sports and politics is not a new development. Presently, we have seen this melding become part of the national conversation yet again, in the form of professional football players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest a pattern of police shootings of unarmed black individuals. Janko gives some historical perspective on these ongoing protests by citing the 1960’s decision by Muhammad Ali not to fight in the Vietnam War, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their black power salutes at the Olympics.

The novel revolves around an aging coach, Billy Donachio, who works for a fictionalized version of the 2018 Chicago Cubs who go on to win the National League pennant and play the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Donachio feels like a loser who tried but failed to make it as a player in the major leagues. He thinks that he’s been bad luck to every team he’s been affiliated with. This pessimistic attitude is also reflected in his personal life, as he’s alone and finds himself aimlessly drifting towards retirement and irrelevance.

In reading a novel, one can evaluate its effectiveness based on how well the plot moves—a rhythm or flow that keeps your attention to the point where you don’t want to put the book down. Given that high criteria, Clubhouse Thief easily meets that goal. Part of the reason for this effectiveness is Janko’s use of language. His prose is thoughtful and very lyrical as he merges together many voices from the Hamlet-like inner monologues of the neurotic Donachio to the Red Sox announcers with their sarcastic and sometimes cruel radio play-by-play and, of course, the continuous roar of the Wrigley Field fans.

There is also a symmetrical aspect to the story as it alternates between the World Series games and the Mahlerian broad sweep of political events, history, religion, psychology, civil rights, and identity issues taking place around it; everything impacts the characters and their environment.

As the games progress, Donachio, who, among other things, is a kleptomaniac, begins stealing letters and notes from the players’ lockers and pockets. By doing this, he learns more about them—the people they are rather than cardboard stereotypes. It’s his way of metaphorically stealing or “borrowing” parts of their lives that he would like to have for himself. This leads to yet another aspect of this broad novel: the introduction of poetry. It’s the lyrical words found in the stolen notes which nicely ties together sports and poetry, adding a serious note to the story.

This is not just a baseball story, as explained earlier. Mr. Janko is making serious commentaries about baseball as an institution and national game, as well as about life in general. As the reader follows the story, he or she should keep in mind the quotations by Czeslaw Milosz, Arsham Azzam, and Bill Russell in the very front of the book. What happens in the plot of the story and the characters goes back to those three key quotations. 

Each character has his own authenticity, his own voice. Their actions throughout the plot are, for the most part, believable. We also have good character development, especially in the washed-up coach, Billy Donachio. At first, he’s a very unsympathetic character due to his prejudices fueled by false stereotypes. Donachio doesn’t trust Azzy Azzam because he’s Muslim, and he doesn’t trust the openly gay Jesus Mijango Cruz either. As for Johnny Stompiano, Donachio doesn’t like his political activism, his strong confidence in himself, and his willingness to take chances with a devil-may-care attitude. However, near the end of the story, Donachio slowly begins to find purpose outside the ballpark, no longer feels like a loser and, most importantly, begins to understand and respect Stompiano, Azzam, and Mijango Cruz.

I highly recommend this book. Again, it’s not just a baseball story or genre book. It’s an “everyman” morality play chock full of poetry, philosophy, psychology, and politics. As Kirkus Reviews states, it’s “a spirited vision of America and its national game.”


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