Four-Finger Singer and His Late Wife, Kate

July 27, 2019

A mutilated ex-baseball player, now a young lawyer with a troubled marriage, has his troubles end when his wife is run over by a truck.  That’s the plot to Part One of FOUR-FINGER SINGER AND HIS LATE WIFE, KATE: A Novel of Life, Death, and Baseball, by Arthur D. Hittner (Apple Ridge Press, $16.95, print; $6.99, ebook).  Part Two is where the novel gets tricky: instead of dying as a dutiful deceased spouse ought to, Kate lingers on, mostly in Singer’s head, as some sort of wandering ethereal spirit. When he decides to resume his pitching career at age 33, she is able to tell him what opposing batters are thinking, which gives him an edge beyond that of his funky, mutilated-hand pitches, and propels him to the major leagues in short order.

The structure of this novel takes some shortcuts, to a structural purist’s mind: Hittner alternates chapters narrated by Jake Singer, its protagonist, and Kate Singer, its antagonist, a device that, whatever its virtues, violates the novel’s point-of-view. From a structural perspective, one of the first (and hardest) choices a novelist must make is that of point-of-view: who tells the story, and what to do about matters the novelist wants to introduce but the narrator is unaware of (yet). In this case, for example, the novel yearns to let the reader know that Kate is both dead physically but spiritually alive while Jake has no idea about this startling turn of events and is going through the mourning process. For Jake, the mourning process involves sexual congress with his red-haired next-door neighbor while his late wife’s body is still warm. (The redhead’s body is downright hot.) His late wife is also spiritually present while the aforementioned congress is in session, so it is dramatically ironic here for Hittner’s reader to be aware of Kate observing the bedroom hijinx closely while Jake is blithely unaware. Jake could not, in other words, narrate this chapter without being conscious of his late wife’s presence in the room, because that would ruin the shock he gets when Kate makes herself known to him in the middle of the act.

Or the narration could be that of a neutral third-person narrator, whose consciousness could convey Kate’s presence while concealing it from Jake. The neutral third-person approach, however, necessarily deprives Hittner of Jake’s and Kate’s singular narrative voices, so instead the first-person narration in alternating chapters (headed "CHAPTER FIVE Jake," "CHAPTER SIX Kate" to avoid confusion) is used. A purist would consider this narrative device to be a bit of a cheat, especially later on in the book where the occasional chapter is narrated by a minor character or three when additional perspectives are needed that are neither Jake’s nor Kate’s.

Structurally, it’s a cheat because the question of perspective is telling of the novel in general: there is always going to be some information that is unknown, at least initially, to a character or two, and how the author chooses to reveal this information is a clear sign of his technical skills. Does he give his clueless first-person narrator some vague foreboding of these events? (Such as "I felt an eerie presence in the room—could it be Kate?—but tried my best to dismiss this presence as merely my survivor’s guilt.") Or does he reveal his big surprise by planting this knowledge in his omniscient narrator’s voice? ("Although Jake could not know it as he frolicked vigorously with the impassioned redhead, their salacious actions were being scrupulously observed by the invisible spirit of his recently run-over estranged spouse.") Or might he choose a third-person narrator who is less than fully omniscient? ("Jake’s heart beat faster, even faster than his lust might compel, but his pounding pulse came from a sense of nervousness he could not explain.") This choice of narrator occurs very early in the creative process, and is often questioned, and changed in early drafts, by most novelists, because it is so crucial to a book’s tone of voice. Hittner’s approach is to say, "Hell with choosing a perspective, I’ll use anyone’s who seems handy at the time."

Since Hittner is a highly literate author, given to making wisecracks and ripostes and clever verbalizations, he could do well to anoint Jake, a Stanford- and Harvard-educated fellow, as his narrator, making the sophisticated word-play plausible. He slips only once in a while, as when, for example, he allows the erudite Jake to refer to his own "widowhood," a state for which he would need another body part to be excised, as well as some estogen injections. When Kate, a farm girl and college dropout, doesn’t understand some of Jake’s high-faluting vocabulary, for example, such as "ephemeral," their characters and voices are easy to tell apart from each other, but there are lapses in her diction levels, too, such as the scene wherein Kate wants to remind a would-be blackmailer of William Congreve’s warning "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Somehow, she is able to explain her allusion as "Learned it in English lit in Briscoe JC. Look it up, asshole." If the 1697 play The Mourning Bride, from which the famous misquotation derives (Congreve words it slightly differently), is actually studied on the junior college level anywhere on earth,  I’m prepared to describe myself as "hornswoggled," and I’ve never woggled a pair of horns before in my entire life. Plainly, Hittner felt a powerful urge to force a highly literary reference into a highly unliterary character’s mouth and didn’t mind violating plausibility to do so.

Kate’s chapters also suffer from the repeated reminders that she is both dead and simultaneously alive. "Is everything all right?" Jake asks her when she has disappeared for a few days, and she answers, "I’m still dead, if that’s what you mean." This sort of remark recurs throughout her narration, and it feels old by the third time (of at least twenty) she remarks on the oddity of being both alive and dead. This is Hittner’s invention, his conceit of a character who is a ghost, so it seems excessive for him to keep calling attention to it in this way. I felt the title of the movie Good Will Hunting was excessive in the same manner: the screenwriter invented a character with the unlikely name of "Will Hunting," after all, so it seems more than a little stupid to underscore that name by punning on it in the movie’s title. I mean, we get it, you’ve made a pun, you’ve created a character who’s a ghost—now would you mind getting your finger out of my eye, please? If the conceit doesn’t work, you’re never going to make it work by harping on it over and over, and if it does work, just leave it be.

Kate’s limited vocabulary and lack of sophistication present a vexing problem for an author, though it’s a problem that some authors have solved brilliantly. There is no less articulate narrator imaginable, for example, than Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, who volunteers for an eternity in hell rather than turn his friend, the fugitive slave Jim, over to bounty-hunters, and in voicing his reasons, condemns "slavery" eloquently to the slagheaps of history. Mark Harris’s wonderful baseball novel (and almost as a good a movie) Bang The Drum Slowly, is narrated by a similarly clueless character, Henry Wiggin, though Wiggin resembles Tom Sawyer more closely than he does Huckleberry Finn. Admired by his peers, rather than despised as his teammate Bruce Pearson is, and as Huck Finn is, Wiggin struggles to articulate his thoughts, which clumsily reveal his generosity and his kindness towards the dying Pearson. Both naïve narrators, Henry and Huck, lack the verbal refinement of their authors, yet because of that drawback put the raw moral issues in each book into high relief. Potentially, the teenaged runaway-turned-waitress Kate could have been on the same plain, had Hittner decided to entrust the narration of his novel over to her entirely.

This problem is endemic to baseball novels: athletes are generally inarticulate, certainly as compared to most novels’ narrators, yet any first-person narrative in an athlete’s voice must restrict the vocabulary, sentence structure, tale-telling skills, etc. to tell the story in a way that benefits from all his failings. The most common cop-out is to employ third-person narration, which tends to elevate the narrative voice to the author’s skill-level and to talk down to the athletes, or else to employ a plausibly articulate first-person narrator, such as Philip Roth in his Great American Novel, which invents a verbally gifted sportswriter named "Word" Smith (same initials, he points out, as William Shakespeare) who offsets the condescension towards the athletes with a barrage of verbal pyrotechnics. Some readers find Word Smith’s elaborate euphuistic narration irritating, especially at book length, but every means of narrating a novel about an essentially non-verbal act, that of athletics of any kind, carries certain risks. In this, Hittner is no more irritating than most authors are: baseball is tough to write a profound novel about.

Many authors have tried. Few have come close to succeeding. As the author of a very long novel about a pitching pheenom, I can address some of the challenges and some of the attractions of this subject matter: the main attraction is the axiom "Write what you know." Most of us think we know a lot about baseball. Your average American male has devoted many more years to deep thoughts about the game, its players, its symbolism, its history, etc. than he has devoted to many other subjects, including sex, which usually finds its own way into most baseball novels, as it does in FOUR-FINGER SINGER AND….

This attraction, though, is also a challenge.  Everyone is familiar with baseball, but all to varying degrees. How much strategy and in-depth knowledge can an author put on display before boring certain readers into a comatose state, such as New Jersey? How much baseball history can one assume is at his readers’ fingertips? Which allusions can an author make that a reader will be certain to understand? When you allude, for example, to Babe Ruth’s called shot, how much context must you provide? Too much context and you risk over-explaining something most aficionados know inside and out, but too little context and you risk alienating the casual fan. Either way, you never find that perfect balance where you never lose any reader, fan or not.

Bernard Malamud’s annoying debut novel THE NATURAL incorporated bits of baseball lore into the plot of the book, which I found show-offy, and too much inside-baseball. My least successful college paper blasted Malamud for bastardizing the tall tale of Wilbert Robinson catching a baseball that turned out to be a grapefruit tossed out of an airplane. (Or maybe it was the Washington Monument—college was a very long time ago.) In a way, I was Malamud’s ideal reader, but I found his misuse of baseball history patronizing and superficial, a blatant over-reach into mythology.

It’s hard to find a baseball novel that I don’t look down my long nose at. Roth’s book was kind of fun, a little tedious at times but nicely conceived, and Douglass Wallop’s THE YEAR THE YANKEES LOST THE PENNANT was a little gem: both of these are ludicrous fantasies, which may be the best way to write fiction about baseball. I can also recommend Peter Lefcourt’s debut novel THE DREYFUSS AFFAIR, about two gay MLBers, which also falls into the category of ludicrous fantasy, as does, I suppose, FOUR FINGER SINGER AND….

To write about MLB, authors must imagine an alternate universe of MLB or else base their version closely on the one that actually exists. Both are difficult acts to pull off, for very different reasons. When an entire alternate history is used, a myriad of details about that team and league must be supplied, which means making up all sorts of minor characters carrying spears all over the place who never get fully realized but who must be described meaningfully for the roles they fill—the opposing pitcher in a big game, and several of his teammates, and the umpires, which wastes a lot of paint filling in the background of a landscape, so to speak, to little effect. But such characters can’t be described merely generically, either, most of the time. Neither can the names of actual MLB players be used, or actual MLB teams, for legal as well as aesthetic reasons. So a novel about MLB presents hundreds of such minor yet essential characters who are difficult to convey skillfully.

Difficult but not impossible: Mark Harris’s trilogy of baseball books manages to perform the trick beautifully. Harris invents a league full of players and teams (he devotes several pages to listing the complete roster of his fictional New York Mammoths, pages that are both very funny and very helpful in keeping his characters straight.)  It is, I think, the only baseball fiction that works purely as fiction. I assigned it to my students in LIT 212, "The Individual and Society," in fact, for decades, knowing that most of my students didn’t care a rap about baseball, pairing it with Ayn Rand’s THE FOUNTAINHEAD, a book whose values and message I hold in the purest contempt. Rand’s highest virtue, that of greed and selfishness, contrasts wonderfully with the sense of a team, and teammates’ loyalty to each other, that forms Harris’s theme. The great thing was that I hardly had to teach at all—I just assigned the two books back to back, and my students invariably would argue among themselves about the values laid out in the two books. That’s always the best teaching, btw, and always goes unnoticed: design a reading list, ask stimulating questions, assign challenging prompts, and get out of the way. "Let ‘em teach themselves" is, I’ve found somewhere in middle age, more efficient than the most carefully scripted lecture.

Roger Kahn, who ended up writing at least one baseball novel that I never cracked open (The Seventh Game, I believe. was the title), described one critical problem in writing novels about baseball. As a very young sportswriter, he attempted such a book, but got no further than imagining its rave review headlines: "SPORTSWRITER’S FIRST NOVEL HAILED. AN AMERICAN CLASSIC," he fantasized in Memories of Summer. "It was somewhat easier to conceive the headline than to compose the book.…if you wrote a book and included a lot of game detail, slides into second base, sharp curve balls, and such the novel would resonate like a juvenile. It would sound like Baseball Joe. After all, how many ways are there to describe someone sliding into second?"

BASEBALL JOE, for the uninitiated, was a series of books about an idealized ballplayer (named Joe Matson, based on Christy Mathewson) published over 100 years ago, written for children, featuring mustachioed villains (gamblers, kidnappers, general crumb-bums) out to defeat pure-hearted Joe by unscrupulous means, usually ending as Joe overturns their schemes at the same time as he wins the Big Game. It is very hard to structure a baseball book that avoids the Big Game climax entirely, almost as hard it is to write a convincing Big Game climax.

FOUR FINGER SINGER AND… does end with the injured pitcher appearing in the World Series with the help of his rapidly fading dead-wife-spirit-assistant, though it’s hard to state definitively if this ending is a parody of the clichéd Big Game climax, or just another iteration of it. Either way, this ending is like dead wives: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. And either way, Big Game climaxes are the bane of baseball novels.

That’s the structural problem with Part Two of this book. The structural problem with Part One is that it tells the reality-based story of Jake and Kate’s cute-meet romance, marriage and almost-divorce, and while that’s probably needed to set up their relationship after her demise, the ins and outs of all the emotional songs and dances (my translation of "sturm und drang") that form a severely troubled marriage reads a little bit like something you might watch on an afternoon TV drama. At one point, for example, Kate has an unwise love affair with her pastor, and at another point, she gets blackmailed by an ex-lover who, unknown to her, had videotaped their illicit love-making, which is all well and good but detracted from the story of Jake’s pitching career for a stretch so long I wondered if that part of the story was over, and I would be treated to a long book about Jake’s post-baseball legal career. That stretch, between his loss of a finger on his pitching hand (he is mistaken for another pitcher knee-deep in doo-doo with the New Jersey mob) and his resumption of his athletic career, takes about twelve years of fictional time to transpire, and almost that long to read.

Corner-cutting aside, FOUR-FINGER SINGER AND… was entertaining and wittily effective, especially for hard-core followers of baseball, although some of the descriptions avoided cliché only by resorting to the cliché’s brother-in-law, the received phrase, an early example of which might be found on page 11 where Jake meets Kate in the presence of his law partners: "They relished reliving their bachelor years vicariously through me," not a terrible turn of phrase but an expression I’d received many times before. Workmanlike, competent prose, in other words, rather than exciting or sprightly writing.  Hittner also stays with his small jokes too long—Jake’s nickname for Pastor Becker, the philandering clergyman who seduces Kate, is "Bastard Pastor," which recurs a dozen or so times in the novel. The similarity of "Pastor" and "Bastard" has been remarked on before (I first encountered it on a Firesign Theater LP in the early 1970s) and as my Uncle Pete liked to remark at the dinner table when I went for seconds, "Even a train stops."  One iteration might have been more than sufficient, tempting as it is to harp on the near-homophones, which are always amusing, just less and less so with each re-iteration. I nearly did a spit-take yesterday, by the way, when someone on TV spoke of the Russian ambassador Kisliyak which I misheard as "the Russian bastard Kisliyak." If I re-told that anecdote three or four more times in this review, you might not find it so amusing anymore, so I won’t. (Credit Les S. Moore.)

I might have been tempted, in Mr. Hittner’s position, with an entertaining idea and his competence at prose, to turn this novel into a short story, a long short story, perhaps my favorite genre of all. Tightening up the plot (reducing Pastor Bastard to a paragraph rather than a sub-plot, starting closer to the main conflict rather than providing the elaborate detailed buildup of Kate and Jake’s deteriorating marriage, etc.) would have eliminated some of the structural problems, and avoiding the Big Game climax would also have sidestepped some unnecessary plot-spinning. (Seems to me that Wallop’s novel—which became the play Damn Yankees, for those unfamiliar with the novel’s title—ended short of the World Series, and Bang the Drum Slowly tacked its Series on as a coda rather than using it as a climax.) Lately, I’ve been recommending Bill’s technique of writing something in 5000 words, then editing it down to 500, and then to 50 words, to my writing students and clients as an excellent way to realize what your true subject really is. In fact, having said so, I’ll reduce this entire 3400-word review down to 34, just to illustrate my point:

"A lively story of a pitcher’s dead spouse reanimating and advising him about his pitch-selection. Well-characterized, competently written, with some unnecessary diversions and sub-plots along the way, Hittner hits a solid double in the gap."

 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
I think Steven can be a bit pretentious and I think the review is rather silly, but I think people are being a bit hard on him. He didn't say it was a terrible book. I got the impression he rather liked it. And, while I do think he spent way too much time on the structural issues that no one cares about, it's not as if he didn't pay any attention to the plot and characters. I actually am anxious to read the book now because it seems interesting.


Several years ago, I read "The Echoing Green" about the Bobby Thomson home run and posted a fairly critical review on Amazon. Basically, I liked the book , or at least the subject matter, but criticized the author's convoluted syntax and sentence structure; I was apparently the first but far from the only one with the same criticism. Somehow, the author found my e-mail address and contact me privately to express his displeasure and wanting me to change my review. I didn't even know if I could do it (apparently you can) but I was not disposed to do so as I thought my criticism was valid. I think it's a bit inappropriate to respond to a critical review unless it involves some kind of fabrication. This was just Goldleaf's opinion of the book.

3:50 PM Jul 31st
 
ArtHittner
Thanks, steve161 and mauimike, for your support. And I'll admit, for better or for worse, that I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman before the publication of the review to which you refer.

To offer a change in the direction of this thread, I wonder what Bill's readers think in general about the genre of baseball fiction. Since I wrote my biography of Honus Wagner back in 1996, I'd desperately wanted to write a baseball novel. Back then, baseball novels were ubiquitous--some great, some horrible. But the game was perceived by readers as a respectable backdrop for fiction, and a viable metaphor for life.

The publishing gods are fickle. Now, baseball novels are most definitely not in vogue (one literary agent told me bluntly that "men don’t read and women don’t like baseball"). I'm not sure his premise is correct but he was right about one thing: that no major publisher will touch them. Promoting this book will be an uphill slog (I'm borderline clueless about social media), but I'm convinced there's a market for an entertaining baseball novel. What do you all think?​
3:50 PM Jul 31st
 
steve161
I could have written Mike's comment myself, except for the part about going to college. A liberal arts track, available (like the concomitant lifetime debt) only in the American higher education system, is wonderfully broadening. I learned a lot in college and had a great time. The two years of grad school, on the other hand, turned out to be a waste of time, except for introducing me to computer programming, which was my ticket out of academia.

Art Hittner, your blurb is only slightly more informative than Steven's review, but I'll give the book a shot. One Amazon reviewer says it will appeal to "three kinds of readers: those who admire good writing, those who love baseball and want to see more of it from the inside, and fans of Neil Gaiman." The first one-and-a-half points describe me, and I will try not to be put off by the third.
2:47 PM Jul 31st
 
mauimike
Do you mean like the Boeing 737 Max? There are and will be more alternatives to the present rather stupid and money wasting educational system. Do you really believe that Trump is responsible and the cause of all that is wrong with America? It seems to me that there's plenty of blame to go around. He is a bumbling idiot who has accomplished nothing that he set out to do. One man can't control the economy. Why make him out to be the most powerful and influential man in the history of the world? I do think however he is exactly what America deserves. Keep voting. "Woo, woo, woo. Going to the candidates' debate Laugh about it, shout about it, When you've got to chose, Every way you look at this you lose." Paul Simon
11:51 AM Jul 31st
 
Marc Schneider
I, too, do not understand why Stephen finds the author's structural technique so off-putting. It actually seems quite ingenious to me.

Mauimike,

As for college education going the way of the buggy whip, do you really want to go to a doctor or fly in an airplane designed by someone who did not go to college? I guess in Trump's America, college degrees are meaningless; his certainly is.


10:09 AM Jul 31st
 
mauimike
Mister Hittner, Mr. Goldleaf's essay is a perfect example of why I'm glad I didn't waste my time going to college. It's also why a college education will soon join the buggy whip as a historical curiosity. Fear not, I've bought your novel on Kindle and though I am as usual a couple of hundred books behind on my reading, I am looking forward to reading your's and I will soon. I also plan to look into your other works. I will probably be kind.
6:31 AM Jul 31st
 
ArtHittner
As the author of "Four-Finger Singer and His Late Wife, Kate: A Novel of Life, Death & Baseball," I debated the propriety of responding to the foregoing review. When I asked Bill James to consider arranging for a review of my novel on this website, I’d anticipated something more conventional. I’ll admit to being sorely disappointed. I’d have much preferred a discussion about the plot, the characters, and the overall appeal of the book instead of the legitimacy of my structural choices. While I take issue with Professor Goldleaf’s technical criticisms, I sincerely doubt that Bill’s readers care. Nor do they learn much about the book from this review. For the convenience of readers, I offer the following brief synopsis:

"Four-Finger Singer and His Late Wife, Kate: A Novel of Life, Death & Baseball" is a darkly comic tale of the unlikely union between Jake, a one-time pro baseball prospect shorn of a finger by a mob goon in a case of mistaken identity, and Kate, a perky, young Iowan waitress with a secret past. When Kate’s revelations and blunders lead to a catastrophic rendezvous with a runaway truck, Jake finds solace in an improbable return to the diamond while Kate seeks redemption posthumously, interfering in Jake’s life in a hilarious campaign to restore his happiness on the ballfield and in the bedroom.

I’d encourage readers to consult my website, www.hittnerbooks.com, for my writing credentials and the Amazon book listing for the early reader reviews. Thank you.

9:22 PM Jul 30th
 
steve161
This is very much an English professor's review, with all its emphasis on structure and technique. What it doesn't do is give me the slightest idea of whether or not I'd enjoy reading the book being reviewed.

I'm sure I've read plenty of novels with alternating narrators. The one that comes to mind is a recent huge best-seller, Gone Girl, hardly a literary masterpiece but a very well made thriller. Anyway, rules are made to be broken, at least to us non-professionals. The only question that matters: Does it work? I search this review in vain for an answer.

Does Word Smith really grate less on your sensibilities than Good Will Hunting? I reacted to it the way I did to all of Terry Southern's sophomoric names in Doctor Strangelove.

Finally, my recollection is that Eliot Asinof and Jim Bouton, in their novel Strike Zone, did indeed use the names of real teams and players. My memory isn't worth a whole lot, however, and I loaned the book out years ago and never got it back, so I can't check.
11:47 AM Jul 30th
 
evanecurb
The Great American Novel is laugh out loud funny. One of my favorite books of any kind, all time.
11:34 AM Jul 30th
 
MarisFan61
BTW, why do mentions of books so often mention the publisher?
I've never known;
Maybe in the old days it was useful or necessary for getting the book. If it ever was, it isn't now.

I used to wonder the same about why, on movies or TV shows (or cartoons, which was the site of my original wonderment) ....why they had those credits saying who it was "by," who did it, who animated it. A goodly amount of time ago, I did realize about that.
But why reviewers say the name of the publisher, I really don't know.
10:02 AM Jul 28th
 
taosjohn
Was this written to demonstrate to your students how NOT to review a book? I haven't even read the work reviewed and I can tell this is inept, and it is a pretty safe guess that it is inapt as well.

Precious, mean, imperceptive-- Henry Wiggin clueless?-- arroganr-- it reviews the book the reviewer thinks the author should have written rather than the book he actually did. And in the process does the same to Bernard Malamud. (Which is not really a work I have much brief for, but to criticize it for not being conscious of Bill James' level fans, I mean...)

And you really think no one in a juco was ever assigned a report on Congreve? That's just silly even for pre-internet consciousness--and precisely the attitude the quoted line is about, I would guess.

Ah well, I have liked several things you have written, and have no predisposition to flame you, honest. But this piece seems to be suffering badly from a lack of pushback type feedback, so here's a vigorous push.

Oh--and you used "plain" where you clearly meant "plane" somewhere in there, too. Pride goeth...
8:47 AM Jul 28th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Anybody wants to order it online, through Amazon, the ISBNs are
(Print) 978-0-9989810-4-8, and (Ebook) 978-0-9989810-5-5

9:09 AM Jul 27th
 
 
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