There was plenty of buzz in the mystery/thriller/horror and baseball fiction communities when it was announced that Stephen King would release a novella titled BLOCKADE BILLY. Online book merchants quickly took pre-orders based on King’s reputation and the unique nature of the publication.
In a scant 80 pages, King --- using a first-person narrative --- relates the story of a struggling baseball team, circa late-1950s, a premise readers of The Great American Novel by Philip Roth will recognize. The New Jersey-based Titans are mired in mediocrity until an unheralded rookie comes out of nowhere to lead by example both at the plate and as a stone wall behind it. No one gets by Billy Blakely (even the name is mid-19th-century Americana), hence the nickname. In this the character mimics Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. And like Roy Hobbs --- Malamud’s tragic hero --- Billy has a secret. This is also where some of W.P. Kinsella’s baseball fantasies come to fore.
In fact, King pays a sort of homage to all three authors within this brief tale, which brings readers up, up, up as they follow the Titans’ accomplishments. But since this is a King story, we know there’s a shoe waiting to drop. The narrator/author telegraphs that impending conflict with phrases such as “there’s something not quite right about that boy.” (Given the current pop culture, all I will say is, Billy is not a vampire.)
Even the cover of the book brings to mind the Norman Rockwellian America of the Fifties, a la a Saturday Evening Post cover. Neither the base runner nor the title character is wearing modern protective gear. Indeed, the catcher looks almost peaceful, his face serene, confident in his ability, although his right hand, extended upwards, is tense, claw-like, with fingers poised to… what? Is the author --- through the art work of Glen Orbik --- trying to tell us something?
Whether readers will be satisfied with the outcome of BLOCKADE BILLY --- originally published in limited edition by Cemetery Dance Press --- is pure conjecture.
Included in this edition is a bonus story, “Morality,” which is more of a philosophical inquiry. What would you do if someone offered you a substantial sum of money in return for perpetrating a (relatively) minor crime in which no one was (seriously, physically) injured and in which you would (ostensibly) never be caught? Unlike the film The Box, which involves a much more nefarious act for a much higher payoff, “Morality” concentrates on the before and after effects of the wife and husband team that ponders the situation.
Again, the theme is not especially new, but it is a King product and thus worthy of consideration.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on December 22, 2010