Steal Away Home Contrived

STEAL AWAY HOME (January 2018)
By Billy Coffey
Thomas Nelson, 416 pages.

First things first: There are at least four other books titled Steal Away Home. This one is from Billy Coffey. The title appears so often because it's a phrase from a famed spiritual,  "Steal Away:" Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus/Steal away, steal away home, I ain't got long to stay. Coffey's book is true to the lyric in several senses. First, the book is partly about baseball, and making it around the bases to "home" is the point of the sport. Coffey also has the spiritual sense in mind.

I'm a baseball fan, so I was lured by blurbs that said it was a tale of a boy with a dream of making it to the big leagues. I've no objection to the novel's spirituality, except here's the second thing: Some forms of literature have preordained endings. LGBT and romance literature are always big strip teases in which two people must become a couple at some point. Crime fiction and mysteries must end with some sort of a reveal. Christian novels like Coffey's are teleological and must make their way to conversion and redemption. I accept that, but this book underwhelmed me.

A third thing: I grew up in a valley in the shadow of Blue Ridge Mountains and have issues with how the novel deals with that region. The book is set in a backwoods town in a western Virginia, ostensibly in the late 1980s through to 2001. Its main character is Owen Cross (get it?), the lad who dreams of playing professional baseball. Actually, it's a shared dream with his father, Paul, who had similar ambitions until he blew out his shoulder. Owen grows up with his father as his personal coach and from little league on, is a star player. There's just one thing that gets Owen's attention as much as baseball: a girl from the wrong side of town named Michaela "Micky" Dullahan. I don't know if Coffey is aware that a Dullahan is a headless horse rider in Irish mythology whose presence is dangerous for humans with attached heads, but Micky certainly can take Owen's mind away from baseball. He nonetheless harbors forbidden love for her from childhood on.  

Here's where things get hairy. I've spent enough time in the Appalachians to appreciate (and lament) its pockets of poverty and the persistence of tradition, but Coffey writes about western Virginia as if the 1950s went straight through the 1990s without having ever heard of the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Everybody in the novel speaks in stereotypical hillbilly idioms—all the time. It makes one wonder what was taught in school, or how Owen made it through Youngstown State, where he plays college ball on scholarship. (Note to Coffey: Athletes get away with a lot in college, but one still has to be semi-literate to make it through four years.)

The town's values are similarly frozen in ancient amber. Micky is from "Shantytown" and everyone there is ostracized by other town residents, including Owen's father, a born-again Baptist for whom the concept of Christian charity does not extend to Shantytown's white trash. Owen and Micky can never be seen together, not with her alcoholic father, Pau's hard heart, or the ridicule of peers to be considered. The two meet clandestinely for years with the grand plan being for Owen to take Micky away from all of this. During their senior year, though, something mysterious happens and plans change.

Coffey juxtaposes the tales of Owen and Micky with a game played in Yankee Stadium in 2001—by which time Owen is a minor league washout who gets baseball's equivalent of a golden handshake: a 24-hour call-up to serve as a backup backstop for the Orioles. The game is a blow out that Coffey tries to milk for non-existent drama in half inning sequences.  Mostly it's a device for Owen to take stock of his life, chat with a 42-year-old reserve outfielder hoping to hit 40 more homers to punch his ticket for the Hall of Fame,* and to consider a question Micky asked years earlier: "What do you love?"

There are simply too many contrivances in this novel. Coffey's look at Appalachia that is one-part Smokey and the Bandit and one part Andy Griffith gone bad. Ambition, metaphorical ghosts, small-town dynamics, unexplained phenomena, and the gap between professed and practiced faith could make for a good novel. This isn't it.

Rob Weir

* Coffeys' character might be loosely based on Harold Baines, though Baines is African American, not a good ol' boy, and he left the Orioles after the 2000 season. Plus, only five players (Bonds, Yaztremski, Musial, Williams, Aaron) have hit 40 homeruns after age 40!  Baines finished with 384 for his career. He is in the Orioles' Hall of Fame, but not Cooperstown.

No comments: