30 May
"Squeeze Play" by Paul Benjamin

“Squeeze Play” by Paul Benjamin. First edition. Avon Books, 1982

In the summer of 1978, Paul Auster had set out to write a mystery novel.  He had spent the previous decade working a series of unusual freelance jobs – among them translating French surrealist poetry, swabbing the decks on the oil tanker the Esso Florence, and answering phones at an art gallery (where he crossed paths with John Lennon) – but his luck had started to run out.  His bank account dwindled, his marriage had faltered, and he lost out on several teaching jobs.  Down on his luck, Auster wrote a straightforward detective novel that followed the template found in the pulp fiction he had taken up reading.  In his “memoir of early failure” Hand to Mouth, he spoke of his admiration for novelists working in this genre: “I had developed an admiration for some of the practitioners of the genre.  The best ones were humble, no-nonsense writers who not only had more to say about American life than most so-called serious writers, but they seemed to write smarter, crisper sentences as well” (237).  A fit of insomnia led Auster to a plot twist that reversed a common denouement to many of these novels.  “One piece of the puzzle kept fitting beside the other, and by the time I drifted off to sleep, I had worked out the bare-bones plot of a mystery novel” (ibid).

Squeeze Play depicts the curious case of George Chapman, a onetime third baseman for the fictional New York Americans.  Chapman’s near-superhuman baseball abilities, combined with his charitable work and gorgeous wife, give him a John F. Kennedy-like aura.  Five years after a debilitating car accident caused the baseball hero to retire from the game, he expresses an interest in running for office.  This act brings an unsavory “friend” out of the woodwork to “put the bite” on him.

Enter Max Klein, a former employee in the NYC DA’s office who struck out on his own.  Unlike George Chapman, Klein’s struck out in recent years.  His principled stance on the racially motivated murder of a teenager landed him on the outs with his previous job, and his marriage had run its course.  Before Chapman enters his office, Klein holds him in high regard – he, too, played the “hot corner” (albeit on his team at Columbia), and his failure spiral coincided with Chapman’s glorious single season.  However, Chapman’s belligerent attitude towards the gumshoe and unwillingness to participate in the investigation show the dark side of a major-league hero.

Up to the twist ending, the novel follows the noir template to a fault.  You’ve got your flashbacks, your crusty DAs, your thugs, and – in George’s wife Judith – a femme fatale whose behavior quite literally fulfills that title.  Auster writes in a clipped rhythm familiar to readers of 1930s crime novels, and a talent for stretching similes without pulling them apart or shattering them. (“His private office was roughly the size of Rhode Island, and by the time you got halfway to his desk, you almost expected to see a sign announcing a Howard Johnson’s a mile up the road.”)

I read this after reading a few other novels by Auster.  While it definitely reads like a one-off work for the belles lettrist, some of his trademarks come through on the page.  The multiple copies of Brugel’s Tower of Babel that hang in Max’s office foreshadow Peter Stillman Sr.’s biblical scholarship in City of Glass.  He begins working with characters – in this case, bit players – of diverse racial backgrounds in this book.  While his perspective on these characters is one of a man who’s aware of his privilege (as in the “Noah’s Ark” passage in Chapter 4), he at least tries to incorporate a more diverse cast of characters than many writers in his position.  Through Max’s own sarcasm towards anti-Semitism, we also see how bigotry affects our protagonist.

The relationship between Max and his ex-wife Cathy has a distinct autobiographical tilt.  At the time he wrote Squeeze Play, Auster had separated from his wife, and the little time he was able to spend with his toddler son, Daniel, had a huge impact on him.  In some ways, one could see the companionable bond between Max and Cathy as a kind of fictional wish fulfillment for how he hoped his relationship with his first wife would resolve itself.  After reading “The Book of Memory” – the second half of Auster’s autobiographical debut The Invention of Solitude – the scenes between Max and his nine-year-old son Richie have a poignant quality about them.

Like much of his work in the late 1970s, Squeeze Play beat a hard path from Auster’s Olympia to the bookshelves.  On its completion, Auster was unable to get it published due to a lack of representation and little interest in crime novels among his demimonde.  An independent publishing company had done a small press run of the book, but the book barely got released when the publisher lost its distribution.  Eventually Avon Books picked it up for a paperback run.  In the end, the book Auster had hoped would help him earn an honest day’s pay netted him less than $1000.

Many writers disown their early works, the ones they write only for the money.  Auster is no exception.  On the release of his 1996 memoir Hand to Mouth, Auster looked back on his first novel with a healthy sense of perspective: “The book was an exercise in pure imitation…but just because I wrote it for money doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy myself” (237).  In a 1999 interview with the Guardian, he sounded a more ambivalent note: “I did it to make money, that’s all. It’s not a legitimate book.”  Its lack of legitimacy has not kept it out of print.  He included Squeeze Play as an appendix to Hand to Mouth, and Faber and Faber reissued the book in 1991.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: