Take a one of the classic novellas of American literature: a work that speaks to the vagaries of compliance and non-compliance, passivity as a moral instrument of both resistance and surrender, and the eccentricities of hermeticism toward which a particular kind of genius is drawn.
Transpose it forward from a 19th century Wall Street law clerk's office to a no less idiosyncratic subculture: the broadcast booth of a turn of the 21st century minor league baseball franchise in small town New England.
Insert an oddly-poignant metafictional digression, in which the "author" draws striking parallels between Herman Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener
and the "narrative arc" (so to speak) of his own first marriage.
Reconfigure them in one of the last vestigial idioms of improvisational speech left in the contemporary American vernacular--the voice of the baseball play-by-play announcer--and you have Ted Pelton's Bartleby, The Sportscaster (The University of Colorado's Subito Press), his Melville-meets-Mel Allen foray into the postmodern allegorical turf first explored by Robert Coover in his 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor.
Pelton, founder and editor of the highly-regarded "independent, innovative fiction" publisher Starcherone Books
and professor of Humanities at Medaille College in Buffalo, read from the novella Thursday night in the Library at Huber Hall on Medaille's Agassiz Circle campus to lead off this semester's The Write Thing
As he amply demonstrated in his 2006 novel Malcolm & Jack (and Other Famous American Criminals), Pelton is a master of literary mashups and interpolations capable of constructing a synchronic narrative sturdy enough to contain multitudes: not just Malcolm X and Jack Kerouac, but also Billie Holiday and Allen Ginsberg, contributors to Alfred Kinsey's sexology research and William Burroughs, all on the same joyride through American counter-culture in the 1950's. One reviewer aptly described the book as "Don DeLillo meets Quentin Tarantino."
Here Pelton adopts what seems at first a less self-reflexive narrative voice: Ray Yarzejski, the longtime play-by-play announcer of the New Bedford Arcturions, a legacy Double A franchise, presumably in baseball's Eastern League. Ray is a gentleman of a certain age, a man whose life has receded almost entirely into his on-air persona, leaving marriage and family behind for a perpetual life of 7th inning stretches and baseball lore.
Yarzejski is beset by the megalomaniacal demands of the franchise owner, one Enzo Simonelli, founder of Cosmo Computers (the largest local employer) and an imperious George Steinbrenner wannabe, intent on transforming his team from a perennial Eastern league also ran to a local media cash cow. One of his harebrained schemes involves pairing Yarzejski with a savant from his tech company, a young hire named Bartleby (or perhaps "Bart Ellebee"), a disciple of the "Bill James" school of baseball analysis that holds that there is no aspect of the game that can not be illuminated by the judicious use of statistics. Simonelli wants Bartleby to be Ray's "color man" at first, but the veteran broadcaster suspects he's being asked to groom his eventual replacement.
During his apprenticeship, the young man proves to be a such a stat sheet polymath that Ray can't help but develop a certain affection for him, however unresponsive Bartleby may be to his gestures of friendship. With Simonelli hectoring Ray to introduce his "new color analyst," Yarzejski preps the young man for his on-air debut, but when Bartleby's microphone is switched on there is nothing but silence.
As a veteran who understands how perilous "dead air" is to a broadcast career, Yarzejski gulps and improvises, launching into a falsetto and engaging in the most surrealistic line of broadcast booth banter with his own alter ego since Donald Barthelme skewered the Ed Sullivan Show in his volume of short stories called Guilty Pleasures. When the broadcast cuts to a commercial, Ray asks his sidekick to prepare for his next cue. "I'd rather not," Bartleby replies, in what will become his mantra.
When the broadcast resumes, Yarzejski returns to his high-wire ventriloquism act, seemingly drawing on previously untapped resources--a liberal arts education and years of cultural literacy heretofore suppressed--and all seems well with the world. The Arcturions even go on a seven game winning streak. Then one evening on an off day, he returns to the press box out of habit and finds Bartleby has taken up residence in the broadcast booth.
Pelton's Bartleby, however, is no mere adaptation of Melville's (whose more formal "I would prefer not to" allows for several nuanced inflections), the way a modern Shakespeare company might adapt one of the Bard's historical plays to a more contemporary setting. In Chapter 5, a new narrator named "Ted Pelton" appears and introduces himself as the putative "author" of the novella. "Pelton" goes on to describe a strange kind of parallelism between his reading of Melville's Bartleby and the dissolution of his 13 year marriage to a fellow writer whose stand-in is already inscribed in the narrative as Ray Jarzejski's wife Mary Ann, a lovely and charismatic woman who drifted away from him even as she drifted into depression.
It's a moving story, told with a kind of tenderness and restraint you wouldn't expect to find in a metafictional narrative, where the escape clause of irony is always lurking in the subtext. Like one of his mentors--the late Raymond Federman, much of whose end-of-career work is published by Starcherone Books--Pelton has mastered the fine art of "Laughterature," wherein the author/narrator inscribes a fragmented, tragicomic version of his or her life (in Federman's case, it was always "laughter in the face of death") distilled by memory into fiction, without making the self-advertising "truth" claims of a personal memoirist.
When Ray Yarzejski's narrative resumes in Chapter 6, it tracks parallel to Melville's story just a few pages longer before veering off in its own direction. Pelton's now former sportscaster discovers his own independent streak, and is more self-aware of the depth of his own identification with Bartleby than Melville's fastidious, lawyerly, narrator. He spends his retirement driving from state to state, visiting correctional facility after correctional facility in search of the enigmatic Bartleby, who appears to have vanished into the recesses of the penal system, or might never have existed after all.
“So true it is,” Pelton quotes Melville in his meta-narrative, “and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill.”
To that sentiment Pelton's concluding echo of Melville ("Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!") adds the possibility of existential doubt. In Ray Yarzejski, Pelton has invented a compliant narrator who waits 60 years to discover the baseline of his own dissident spirit, but this novella is still, finally, a long road trip. It is Pelton's most accessible book to date, and quite possibly his best.