By Tricia Khleif
At what point does the pursuit of a dream cross the line from perseverance into delusion? This question haunts Joseph M. Schuster’s poignant and unsentimental debut novel, The Might Have Been.
The protagonist, the once moderately promising baseball player Edward Everett Yates, lives in the shadow of the terrible accident that ended his brief stint with the St. Louis Cardinals when he was 27 years old, in 1976. Leaping to catch a fly ball in a game against the Montreal Expos, he jammed his cleat in the ballpark fence, twisted his knee, and seemed, in his recollection, to cleave into two different men:
Years later, he thought of that moment when he was caught in the chain-link fence in another country as a kind of border defining the geography of his life. There was his self on the far side of the line, the major league ballplayer; and his life on the other side, when he was an exile from the country where he wanted to be.
Edward Everett spends the remainder of his life chasing the self on the far side of the line. Over the next decades, he wanders the hinterlands of minor league baseball, first yearning for his break, then managing players who yearn for theirs.
The novel rejects what reviewer Aimee Levitt of the Riverfront Times describes as two long, revered traditions in baseball fiction: the redemption story, where lovable underdogs triumph against impossible odds to win the big game, and the magic-tinged tale, “replete with charmed bats and mysterious voices urging farmers to transform their cornfields into ball fields that permit the ghosts of disgraced players to be redeemed, estranged fathers and sons to be reconciled,” and life to regain its proper order. Instead, Schuster makes a point of exploring a quieter, more devastating and more universal experience. “Failure,” the author said in an interview with Levitt, “is more interesting, dramatically, than success . . . Who needs another down-and-out, hard-luck team that fights its way back? Success has been done and done and done.”
Yet had the book merely told the story of one man’s grim downward trajectory, it would not have become the expansive and deeply moving experience that it is. The Might Have Been is a clear-eyed, often sharply funny tale full of tragic aspirants, villains, washed-up buffoons, and men struggling not to become washed-up buffoons—each of them at once idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable.
The novel, which earned luminous reviews, was nearly a decade in the making before its publication last year, when Schuster was 59 years old. In his conversation with the Riverfront Times, he described the original draft—clocking in at 1,000 pages—as “really bad” and choked with tangents. Schuster, a communications professor at Webster University, cobbled together opportunities to work on it during vacations and sabbaticals, restructuring the plot, rewriting, distilling, starting again.
Eventually, the painful labor paid off: novelist Margot Livesey, an enthusiastic supporter who’d worked with Schuster at Warren Wilson College’s low-residency creative writing program years before, introduced him to her agent, who quickly sold the manuscript. Up until then, however, Schuster remained uncertain his work would ever see daylight. And for him, self-publishing was never an option. “If no one was interested in publishing my book,” he said in the Riverfront Times interview, “I wasn’t interested in it coming out. The world doesn’t need another book.”
This combination of humility and doggedness—the acute awareness of one’s place amid a multitude of strivers—pervades the novel. The constant tension between success and oblivion gives the story its primary narrative energy and emotional power. Edward Everett and the other minor leaguers inhabit a precarious middle space between “the World”—the dreaded realm outside baseball where failed players are banished—and the glorious universe of the major leagues. As a result, they submit to a transient life, as Edward Everett reflects not long after his accident:
Here he had been, in some sort of limbo, waiting for his life to start, as if he were forever in a train depot, always on his way elsewhere, wherever the club that owned his contract told him to go, living in places that always had the feel of temporariness: . . . living in houses owned by former ballplayers who sometimes let the rent slide in exchange for some nineteen year-old kid listening, for the fifteenth time, to a story about the day their landlord hit a home run off Dizzy Dean in a spring training game back in 1935; . . . sleeping on a cheap couch someone found in an alley next to a dumpster; because none of it mattered, none of the addresses were where you’d end up, all of them just steps on a journey toward the major leagues.
And that’s what’s most maddening about this middle space: deliverance or ruin are always hovering close at hand. A dazzling stroke of fortune can catapult you to the major leagues; a disastrous reversal will cast you out into the World. Surrounded by all his possible lives and destinies, Edward Everett inhabits none of them permanently, and so, in a sense, becomes a ghost in his own life. Even his major league statistics bear this phantom quality—his time with the Cardinals is recorded under the heading, “Players with fewer than ten official at-bats” and shows a string of zeroes save for columns marked with no number at all, just a dash —a “mathematical impossibility,” as he reflects, “zero-indivisible-by-zero.”
Despite good intentions, he drastically mismanages his relationships outside of baseball, with two divorces and a nameless son he spends years longing to meet. All the while, the World beckons—not only its threats, but its temptations of a stable, if unremarkable existence: a lucrative job as a flour salesman, the chance at a happy family, and, Schuster writes, “a life in which he’d eventually be one of the well-dressed men with Cadillacs, trips to Europe, extended winter stays in Arizona.”
But Edward Everett returns to baseball and waits, his liberation always just around the corner. Part of the wisdom of the book is that all these transient moments and temporary detours, the years waiting for one’s proper destiny to unfold, eventually add up to a life. Thus, on his sixtieth birthday, a day when the backed-up sewage drains flood his single-A team’s ballpark, Edward Everett regards his circumstances with stupefaction:
How, he wondered, had he ended up celebrating his sixtieth birthday with an epileptic Pomeranian as his only companion, standing in the kitchen, watching a Lean Cuisine lasagna, a frozen meal [his ex-wife] had left behind, rotating in a microwave in a house with a leaky basement in a town where he managed a team that played its games in an honest-to-God cesspool?
This keen sense of the absurd, grounded in the cumulative disappointments of everyday life, helps spare the novel from the melodrama that can sometimes ensnare sports stories. Indeed, Schuster takes painstaking measures to avoid any whiff of sentimentality, denying his characters the brilliant, fist-pumping victories that at moments might provide relief to a reader. At times, this narrative reticence feels a bit too deliberate—even true life offers occasional wondrous surprises—but in the aggregate, the approach heightens the subtle humor of the book and intensifies the beauty of the small, fleeting triumphs his characters do achieve.
A similar wry tension infuses Schuster’s language. In lucid, unadorned detail, he renders the shabby trappings of Edward Everett’s daily existence: the single-A team’s substitute ballpark, with its rotting back wall and missing dugout and clubhouse that’s “little more than a dank concrete cave with . . . ductwork and copper plumbing [crisscrossing] the ceiling”; the dreary motel rooms and diners and interminable bus rides. Yet amid this drudgery, the narrative vaults into lyrical descriptions of the game itself. Describing the pitching of Pete Sandford, a young player Edward Everett manages, Schuster writes, “In games when he was effective, his pitches moved like a trout through water, slippery, seeming to change elevation and direction on their flight to the plate, as if the ball were avoiding some obstacle only it could perceive.”
Schuster’s prose is most ecstatic at such moments, celebrating the intricacies of play and the surprising grace that can possess otherwise graceless men. In one particularly memorable segment, Sandford seems visited by an otherworldly power one night during a sparsely attended game, tossing strike after elegant strike and easily dispatching the few feeble hitters. For a brief time, Edward Everett takes refuge in the spectacle, feeling “as if the pitcher had decided that he was going to remind them all that it wasn’t the park or the ambience or the size of the crowd that mattered, but what happened between the foul lines . . . For two and a half hours, it was enough that Edward Everett forgot that his career was tenuous, that his wife had left him.” Later that night, he contemplates the achievement of this pitcher, “the man who for more than two hours lived and breathed in an alternate universe from everyone else there, [and Edward Everett] could only watch him from the outside and get a glimpse of the world that transcended the rusted fence, the cracked home plate—but only a glimpse.”
These moments land with particular poignancy, and a whiff of absurdity, because they take place in a ramshackle ballpark “in a dying town in the middle of Iowa, with roughly ten dozen people on hand.” Unless you happened to be one of them, you would never know anything extraordinary had occurred. In a way, too, such incidents spell doom for Edward Everett and the other minor leaguers: a brief intimation of that “alternate universe” is enough to keep them in the game, trailing, for years, after a life that may amount to a few forgotten columns on a stats sheet.
At the same time, there is something admirable in chasing these transitory glimpses. In their best games, Edward Everett and Sandford and the others seem to harbor a secret few in the world would understand: that in remote parks in peripheral towns, ordinary men can perform feats of stunning beauty. The fact that no one is present to witness the acts lends them a paradoxical cosmic weight; there is something dignified in the players’ very indignity as they shun a stable existence in the World for fleeting but unmistakable moments of transcendence.
While Schuster never romanticizes his characters, the novel recognizes the quiet, if fraught, dignity of laboring in continued uncertainty. Reflecting to the Riverfront Times on what finally propelled him to write the book, the author said this:
I’ve known people who get to a certain age and are consumed with regret and bitterness about the way their lives have turned out; it sometimes becomes the main fact of their lives at that point. When I thought about what I wanted to do in my own life and hadn’t to that point—I wanted to write novels. I had no idea whether what I wrote would get published, but I knew that if I didn’t at least work as hard as I could to write the best novel I could, I might turn out to be one of those people who were filled with regret. I didn’t want to do that, and so the only way I knew I could avoid it was to keep working at the novel. It might not end up published, I thought, but at least if I finished it, I wouldn’t wake up one day years down the road and think about how I hadn’t even tried to do what I wanted to do.
It’s a deceptively simple goal: to work at something, and work at it, until it’s as good as your powers will allow. To pull this off requires both a fortitude and a modesty that could easily desert someone after a few years. Knowing when to quit and when to press ahead, when to step back or return for more, is possibly an art in itself—and one that Schuster, fortunately for us, seems to have mastered.
Tricia Khleif has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is working on a novel set in Damascus, Syria.