By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
As tragically as his knee and his major-league dream are shredded, the official rules of baseball see Edward Everett off with one final ignominy: In the event of a rainout that occurs before the losing squad completes five innings at the plate, "the umpire shall declare it No Game."
"No Game" means precisely that. All prior action, all prior statistics, cease to exist.
If there were a Baseball Encyclopedia of Fictional Characters, Edward Everett Yates' career line would be printed in invisible ink.
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For nine years Schuster's vacation and sabbatical routine went like this: He'd get up in the morning and go to the coffee shop. He'd get coffee while the laptop booted up, then he'd plug in his headphones, turn on some music and start working toward his daily quota of 1,500 words. Sometimes it would take an hour or two. Sometimes it would take all day. The song was always the same: Aretha Franklin's rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer" on endless repeat. Schuster estimates he has listened to that song 5,000 times. He's still not sick of it. If he hears it now, it takes him right back into the world of the novel.
Schuster describes the first draft of The Might Have Been as "really bad." It came in at 1,000 pages and included lots of tangents that Schuster has since banished to a separate file on his computer (not out of love but because he can't bear to throw anything away). In this first telling, Edward Everett had ended up an adjunct professor at a for-profit university in a shopping mall.
"Joe's notable for his over-preparation, his willingness to do more than is required to find the heart of the story," says his friend Kenny Cook, a former workshop mate and novelist now teaching at Prescott College in Arizona. "I do it too. We joke that we go overboard: To get a 15- to 20-page story, we write 60 to 80 pages."
It was Cook who persuaded Schuster to nix the Mall U plotline and commit to a Glenn Gardner-type professional trajectory for Edward Everett. "He said, 'Trust baseball. Baseball is compelling,'" Schuster remembers.
That was in 2007, six years after Edward Everett first appeared to Schuster at the writing conference. After that, Schuster says, the story came much more quickly, and by the following summer he had something recognizable as a novel. (The ending came to him one day while he was mowing the lawn.)
He had no deadline, no contract to fulfill. There was no indication that the novel, which he was starting to call All He Might Have Been, would ever get published or that he would ever earn any money from the years of work. Self-publishing was not an option. "If no one was interested in publishing my book, I wasn't interested in it coming out," he says. "The world doesn't need another book."
"If you spend that much time on a novel, it's not for the money anymore," Cook offers. "You want it to be the best possible book it can be."
It's a different sort of ambition, Schuster admits, from the sort usually associated with writers — or working journalists — who need to publish in order to earn their living. (One thinks of Charles Dickens, the model for the modern writer, churning out book after book to support his large family and allay his lifelong fear of following his father to debtors' prison.) He received his indoctrination at the MFA program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
The Warren Wilson program is low-residency: The students, most of whom have full-time jobs, attend intensive ten-day sessions twice a year then correspond with their professors the rest of the time. Schuster was lured to Warren Wilson by Richard Russo, whom he'd met in 1988 when the author had come to read from his work at Washington University. The reading was so underpopulated — five attendees, including Russo and the professor who was introducing him — that Russo suggested everyone adjourn for a beer instead. (Fourteen years later Russo would win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls.)
At Warren Wilson, Schuster formed several important and lasting friendships, most notably with Cook, a fellow student; Russo, his thesis adviser; and Margot Livesey, a professor and a novelist who would later be instrumental in transforming The Might Have Been from a labor of love into a published novel.
There are two long and honorable traditions in baseball fiction. The first is the redemption story: a team of lovable losers who come from behind to win the Big Game. The second is the twisted baseball version of magic realism, 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 The Game to be restored to its rightful place at the tippity-top of American mythology.
The Might Have Been, Schuster is quick to insist, is neither. Left behind by the team after his injury, Edward Everett recuperates in a swank Montreal hotel room, where he and a casual girlfriend conceive a child (or so the woman tells him; the mystery will haunt him for the rest of his life), then returns to "the World." After a brief and prosperous stint as a wholesale flour salesman, he succumbs once more to the lure of baseball. Flash forward 30 years and Edward Everett, now pushing 60, finds himself living alone in a dying Iowa town, managing a moribund team in the lower minor leagues and wondering if it was all worth it.