Friday, February 7, 2014

Country Hardball - Steve Weddle
First line (of the first story): "'What happened to your face?'"

Country Hardball is a wonderful collection of short stories all revolving around the same small Arkansas town. While the stories link together like puzzle pieces of the town, each story is its own gem, sparkling in its depiction of the characters and events. 

Weddle's illumination of how single events touch everyone in a small town becomes brighter and brighter as each story makes its contribution to the whole. The links between the stories create a feeling of walking down the town's main street, looking in different windows, those windows where the light is on for us. But more than seeing into homes, we see into lives, into hearts.

Alternating the perspective of the stories, Weddle brings out the flavor of the small southern town with language, dialect, biases, and other atmospheric elements. His descriptions can be at turns heart-wrenching:

"The wounded you hold, chest tight in a flatbed truck under a starpricked sky to a safe house in Rosas. Handing over a child filled with horror, handing over an eternal burden. The family unable to move on. To grieve. A wound that never heals. A corpse you can never bury. Handing them back a fragment. The ones left charred, falling apart like last night's firewood. The light behind their eyes burned into graying ash as the smoke fades away." (Smoke Fades Away)


"...showing how one life intertwines with another. House of cards. Dominos. However you want to look at it. One thing tied up into the next, pull a thread and it all falls apart...All pieces to the same puzzle, only I ain't got the front of the box to see what the picture looks like." (Country Hardball)

and even quite funny:

"Budwiser cans, stomped and squashed, spread around the yard like some drunk midgets had been playing a hopscotch game last night before the storm." (On Account)

In "Good Times Gone"  we see the town busy-body, Mrs. Richardson, who knows everything about everyone going back years and years. And the book's title story, "Country Hardball" has the local store owner who knows what the town folk buy when they come in to shop. The anonymity of big cities is no where to be found.

Simultaneously, Weddle illustrates the universality of people--their emotions, relationships and trials. No matter where you're from, we all share common links. From a man struggling to find reason amidst the irrational in "The Ravine" to a special, young boy dealing with the concept of death in "The Thing With Feathers," to a family trying to overcome obstacles to help make their son's dreams come true in "All Star."

Impressively, Weddle puts a fresh twist on the sports analogy in "Country Hardball" when he casually compares pitching to a police investigation.

A strong theme that permeates the stories is war and its effects on people. There are characters who served and saw horrors, some who served and came back different people and others who lost loved ones. But there's also the war that they live through each and every day in their small town--fighting to keep their heads above water, keep their families safe and survive the tragedies that do occur. It comes out most distinctly in "How Many Holes":

"He knew he should say something to her, something about Staci. Something about how the best thing they could do would be to get away from that life, those people. His family. Even the family he'd lost. You leave behind the living and the dead. You just do."

Country Hardball is complex, thought-provoking, and dark. Those who are especially sensitive to profanity may want to steer clear, but Weddle does an exceptional job of using that language to develop his characters, not just throwing it in for the sake of profanity.  The whole collection embodies an authenticity that will have readers convinced they're in the deep south. Take a break to look up and you'll wonder where the heck those purple hull peas are.

Country Hardball is available in hardcover (ISBN: 9781440570803) and trade paperback (ISBN: 9781440570810) from Tyrus Books.


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