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I once wrote to this list that Mark Twain and baseball are two of the things in life that bring out the best in people, so a book that combined the two would certainly be worth knowing. Darryl Brock's first novel If I Never Get Back was originally published in 1990 and has recently been re-released in a softcover edition to accompany a follow-up volume titled Two in the Field. These two books tell the story of a man who makes two trips back in time, having adventures with a historically great baseball team and with Mark Twain. Darryl Brock, a former high school teacher used his knowledge of history and facts gleaned from a 10,000-mile road trip to paint a convincing picture of America and baseball in the late 19th century.
Sam Clemens Fowler, the protagonist of both novels, is a man with little left to lose in life. He lost his mother when he was very young, and his father later abandoned the boy. Raised by grandparents who were Twain-obsessed, he grew up well-grounded in everything Twain. Later, he got a degree in journalism, landed in San Francisco as a crime reporter, married, and fathered two daughters. At the beginning of If I Never Get Back Fowler's marriage has broken up. He learns that his father has died, and he goes back East for the funeral.
After his father's funeral, Sam decides that he is not in a hurry to get back to San Francisco, so he takes an Amtrak train to make the slow westward trek. One night he gets off the train during a brief stop and walks around to clear his head of the scotch that has suffused it. When he gets back to the train station, he see that the diesel Amtrak train has left, and has been replaced by a steam train. This begins his adventure of visiting the year 1869.
While the 19th century train conductors don't know what to do with this man with strange clothes, incomprehensible money and a computerized train ticket, Fowler is befriended by members of a newly-formed professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. One of the players named Andy feels that Sam has some sort of mystic connection to him--"The brother I never had." Andy takes Sam under his wing and makes sure that this stranger makes it through his first days in a strange land. The team manager and a few of the other players are dubious, but Sam is given permission to travel with the team.
On a train to New York, Sam picks up a letter that was carelessly left on the seat in front of him. After reading it, he recognizes it as a letter from Olivia Langdon to her fiancé. Sam realizes that he must be on the same train as Mark Twain, and finds him in the dining car. The two men strike up a friendship, even though Twain is perplexed by Fowler and how much he knows.
At this point, the question must be addressed--how convincingly does Brock portray his Mark Twain? My sense is--very well indeed. Brock's Twain is thoroughly-researched and Brock gives his readers the sense of the famous author along with his gargantuan enthusiasms and his overwhelming love for Livy. This is in stark contrast to Philip Jose Farmer's The Fabulous Riverboat, another fantasy novel, where Twain was well researched, but seemed as bland as toast. Twain's all-too-brief appearance ends after the two men share a hotel room in New York, but Twain remains a presence in the story line throughout the book.
As Sam travels with the baseball team, he gets more involved with the Red Stockings and the players. He meets Andy's mother, an Irishwoman who is dying, and needs money to make one last journey to her homeland. Sam also sees a photograph of Andy's sister Cait and falls instantly, madly in love with her. She is a Civil War widow living in Cincinnati with a young son named Tim who never got to meet his father. By the time the team returns to Cincinnati, Sam has been added to the team as a substitute player who is barely athletic enough and knowledgeable enough to get by. The team causes a sensation in their home town because they have gone through months of 1869 without a single loss.
Baseball was the same but different in 1869. Baseball gloves had not yet been adopted, and Sam's use of one made him the target of derision from other players. In some parks, a home run was treated as a ground rule double. The home team would play the bottom of the ninth, even if they were ahead. Offensive ability far outstripped defense as games were played to scores like 53-48. Professional gamblers openly did business next to the playing field, changing the odds as the game progressed. Brock is at his best here, devoting entire chapters to vividly recounted games.
Sam makes sure that Cait and her young son Tim get to the games, but Sam's efforts to woo Cait are frustrated by many things. She hates baseball as much as her son loves it. She is still grieving for her late husband Colm and doesn't want any new romantic attachments. There is also a lodger in Cait's boarding house named Feargus who served with Colm in the war and he has his eyes set firmly on Cait. A chance for Sam to score points with Cait comes in the form of a letter from Mark Twain. Twain provides information about a stash of gold buried with a Confederate soldier who got lucky in cards just before he got unlucky in an escape attempt organized by the Fenians, a group of Irish radicals. Twain can't risk his high status in Elmira society by getting directly involved, but he proposes that Fowler sneak into the graveyard, separate the corpse from his loot, and split the proceeds with Twain. Fowler pulls it off, with some last minute help from a ghostly figure in a Union uniform. The success of the graveyard robbery makes Fowler a rich man, but very unpopular with the Irish radicals who felt that they were entitled to the money. Sam quickly uses his new fortune to send Andy and Cait's mother back to Ireland, and Cait thaws to Sam just a bit.
Sam also teams up with a mulatto circus bicyclist named Johnny to open team-sponsored concession stands at the park--inventing the staples of baseball cuisine such as hot dogs and hamburgers. This is, of course, a broad nod to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Sam's enterprising nature creates a serious enemy in the form of LeCaron, a veteran of the street warfare in New York's Five Points. LeCaron provides the story with numerous violent near-misses as Sam criss-crosses America with the team that is still undefeated. By now, every game creates the kind of sensation seen with an eighth inning pitch in a perfect game. With the season ending, Sam finally consummates his love affair with Cait, before he is called to make one more trip with the team to play a final exhibition game in San Francisco.
On the trip west, Fowler has a final showdown with LeCaron, who is left for dead in a gun battle in Promontory, Utah. Back in San Francisco, Fowler has a final showdown with Feargus and the ghost of Colm. If I Never Get Back ends with an unwanted return to the 20th century San Francisco. Fowler is foolish enough to tell a helpful psychiatrist all about his trip to the past. However, he is deemed harmless and allowed to have limited visitations with his daughters, but he knows what he knows.
I cannot imagine anyone reading Two in the Field, the second novel, without having first read If I Never Get Back. While Brock tries hard to get the new reader on board, there is just too much previous storyline to cover. A year has passed in modern San Francisco since Sam came back. At a baseball game Sam gets into a fight with a lout who uses bad language in front of his daughters. His mind snaps a bit, and as the police haul him away, he raves about his lost love from 1869. This lands him another series of visits with the psychiatrist, who convinces him to take a leave of absence from work, go to Cincinnati and try and rid himself of the demons.
Seeing the old neighborhoods in Cincinnati only reinforces his belief that he has been there before. When no further magic occurs, he drives west to Keokuk, Iowa to muse on that town's connection with the young Samuel Clemens. Shortly after driving away, he encounters a fierce storm, runs his car off the road, and wakes up in the care of quaintly-dressed farmers. He knows that he is once again in the past, and expects it to be 1871, but it is actually 1875.
It doesn't take Sam much time to find an exhibition game with former Red Stockings teammates. He asks about his old friend Andy and finds that he has been traded to Boston. Not being as lucky as in the first adventure, Sam is teamed with a vagrant named Slack who teaches the time traveler the finer points of riding trains unobtrusively. The two head for Hartford with two goals in mind--reconnecting with Andy, and finding Sam's partner-in-crime Mark Twain.
When the doorbell rings at the Twain mansion, the two vagrants are treated like, well, vagrants, and are not shown in to see the family. Sam tries to get a message to the author, and a few minutes later, George the butler comes out with a note from Twain to meet him later at a pool hall. Twain then helps to finance Sam's new wardrobe and get him started properly on his new adventure. Fowler's reunion with Andy doesn't go much better, but he does get a lead on Cait's whereabouts, sending him to the coal fields of Pennsylvania, where Cait was last seen with a group of Irish nationalists, and then to a Utopian camp in Nebraska.
Sam finally sees Cait again, and he is pleased that she has not remarried, but she treats him with the warmth to be expected from a woman scorned. After all, it has been five years and she has come to think of Sam as the man who broke her heart and ran away with the money. Fowler is soon thrown in with Linc, a black man who won a Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in the Civil War, and certainly the strongest character in this book, with his gritty pessimism and his loyalty to Sam.
Cait warms up enough to Sam to ask him for a favor--take her son Tim out of the hardscrabble Utopia and escort him back to Boston to live with her brother Andy. On the trip East, Sam manages to meet up with Twain again briefly. Later, Sam is induced to pull off another scam against a thug who stole thousands from the Irish community. The loot is being kept by a politically powerful gambling house owner in the upstate New York town of Saratoga Springs. The successful scam results in a series of events that send Sam and Cait into the hills of North Dakota to find Tim, who has been kidnapped by the evil gamblers. Sam and Cait enlist reluctant help from General Custer, and Sam shows his gratitude by warning him about a place called the Little Big Horn. This also leads to new encounters with LeCaron, a man who will just not stay dead. The final showdown involves one more visit from the ghost of Colm, who makes his final exit knowing that he has set the world right.
As a writer, Brock is no Twain, but he doesn't try to be. By making both books
first person narrative, the descriptions are that of a burned out crime reporter
who still has a touch of romance in his soul. In any passage where he is describing
Cait he approaches poetry, but the rest is more of a journalistic style. Brock
is a history teacher, and it shows. The richness of detail, particularly in
the first book, helps to make the implausible story plausible. The books are
worth reading for any Twain enthusiast or baseball enthusiast, and a must for
those of us who are both.