(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 22, 2003)
"We're talking about murders, grief, those families [of the several victims] But what about the suffering of our fans? That pain? How do you compare the grieving of a very few with the collective agony-and I don't think that's too strong a word-of all the die-hard Red Sox fans?"
Red Sox fans, and the fans of any team that has consistently failed to win The Big One, will identify with the emotional dilemma in this black-humored novel about the lengths to which Red Sox management will go to protect a key player so they can win the World Series. It's late in the season, and it looks as if this will finally be the Big Year, the year in which the Red Sox will manage to bring home a championship--if they can only keep the world from discovering that one of their stars has a few unusual problems with his control--he may be a serial murderer! The Red Sox are desperate to overcome the Curse of the Bambino, which began in 1918, the year Red Sox owner/ Broadway producer Harry Frazee, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 so he could finance the musical No, No, Nanette. The front office is willing to rationalize even multiple murders ("Six murders when you think about it, it's almost nothing.") to end the agony of watching the team go down to defeat yet again (something that fans of winning teams, like the Yankees, just wouldn't understand).
Ferrell writes a fast-paced baseball thriller, told from the opening page with a wryly casual point of view. "It seemed as natural as could be to throw the old man to the floor and cut his head off. So that's what he did." We don't know, at first, anything about the killer, and Ferrell offers a few red herrings about who it might be from a large collection of dysfunctional players on the Red Sox team. Jeremy Davenport, with a record for robbery, is out on bail for throwing a tear gas grenade into a bus full of nuns, Benito Castillo has attacked and tried to strangle one of his teammates, Kenton "The Raven" Ravinovich, whose face has been "surgically disfigured" as a result of cancer surgery, "harbor[s] enough anger to launch a ground war," and pitcher Ron Kane has been in a vicious clubhouse fight. When an unambiguous videotape of a player disposing of a victim's body arrives at the front office, however, there is no doubt about who the murderer is. The trick is to keep the press and the police from finding out, at least until after the Red Sox finish the season, and, they hope, win the Series.
This is not a novel in which characters are individualized or undergo any major epiphanies. We know only a few characteristics about each one, just enough to let the plot unfold and the predicament of the front office become more and more absurd and humorous as the number of murders mounts. As "Fish" Sharkey, the manager, tries to maneuver the Red Sox into the playoffs and a World Series victory, we don't identify with him as much as we empathize with the frustration he's experienced, the same frustration fans have experienced with all the Red Sox's "almost" teams over the years. The plot is straightforward and relatively uncomplicated, with extortionists demanding ever-increasing sums to keep from releasing the videotape to the public, and the vice-president of the team (acting on behalf of the incompetent 94-year-old owner) coming up with a plan to digitally alter the face on the videotape so he can frame a "less crucial" member of the team. The management's dilemma becomes more complicated when the murderer's greedy agent tries for a 9-figure salary for his star, other players threaten to strike over their much lower salaries, a turf war breaks out between the Irish Mafia in Boston and an Italian mob from Chicago over the extortion paid by the front office to keep the videotape secret, and the few sensible members of management begin to question whether there are any values at all that are more important than winning.
The author is clearly a Red Sox fan of long duration who recognizes the symptoms of Boston's communal frustration and understands the lengths to which some rabid fans and supporters might be willing to go for the first World Series victory since 1918. He pokes good-humored fun at desperate fans, and his clear inclusion of himself in that number makes the book less a hard-edged satire than an amusing meditation on "what if." The only real mystery here is whether the Red Sox will get away with their deception long enough to win, and few Red Sox supporters (or supporters of other hard-luck teams) will be able to resist the temptation to root for the bad guys just so the agony of defeat will finally end. Screwball will probably not win any prizes for its mystery or its complexity, but in its depiction of the excitement of baseball and the lure of October's biggest prize, the World Series championship, it is certainly a delightful way to spend a warm summer afternoon--if one can't get out to the ballpark.
- Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Screwball at HarperCollins.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Screwball (April 2003)
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About the Author:
David Ferrell has been a part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning news teams at the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in The Best American Sports Writing, 1998.
He lives in Long Beach, California.