A boon to the ”young readers” it’s pitched to and the Jung readers who’ll spend seasons analyzing its expansions on world mythology, Michael Chabon’s Summerland is a baseball novel that gives new meaning to the words ”fantasy league.” It arrives just in time for a World Series that almost didn’t happen yet has no use for the cold realities of revenue sharing and salary caps; it’s for kids. But even Chabon’s grown-up novels — ”The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” ”Wonder Boys,” ”The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” — have an adolescent energy, and ”Summerland” is of a piece with them and the whole brainy-boys division of contemporary prose. It’s ”The Bad News Bears” as coscripted by Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Campbell.
Top of the first chapter: ”Ethan said, ‘I hate baseball.”’ Eleven-year-old Ethan Feld lives with his widower father on Clam Island, Wash., a town dreary even by the soggy standards of the Pacific Northwest, its sky often ”more pearly than blue, gray but full of light, as though a thin cotton bandage had been stretched across the sun.” Except, that is, for a corner called Summerland, where it does not rain between spring and fall. Summerland hosts Clam Island’s Little League, the worst team of which is Ruth’s Fluff ‘n’ Fold Roosters, the worst player of whom is Ethan. He is error-prone, crippled by faithlessness, and nicknamed Dog Boy ”because of the way he was always hoping for a walk.” Of course, he plays right field.
As more innings of ridicule come around for the Roosters, Ethan begins to receive supernatural visitors. First, an ancient Negro Leaguer named Ringfinger Brown materializes to scout Ethan’s potential as a hero. Then a pipe-smoking, 765-year-old ”werefox” reveals to him the structure of existence: The Tree, infinite and immaterial, bears on its limbs the four Worlds — the Middling (this earth), the Summerlands (where mobs of fairies play baseball endlessly), the Winterlands (treacherous), and the Gleaming (a realm sealed off by the wily Coyote).
The Coyote is the trickster figure of Indian myth. An inscrutable imp possessed of satanic charisma, he has given man fire, knowledge, pizza, and even baseball itself, the game of ”paths and chances.” He’s planning to kill the Tree, putting a stop, as one character says, ”to the one great Story, the one about you and me and all the creatures that ever lived.” The apocalypse will be scored to ”Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).”
To stop him, Ethan must travel through many dimensions with many one-dimensional cohorts. There is the plucky tomboy (Jennifer T. Rideout, a pitching ace and another motherless child), the absentminded scientist (Ethan’s dad, whose best invention perhaps has applications as a cosmological herbicide), and the rascally rodent (a ”wererat” mischievous in the mold of Templeton from ”Charlotte’s Web”). Wizened mentors, imprisoned fairy princesses, and washed-up batting champs round out the roster. There’s much magic.
Only the least jaded preteen will not sneer at the familiarity of this formula. But only a grump would not give over to the wonder of Chabon’s otherworlds, vividly teeming as they are with thunderbirds, frost giants, Sasquatches, mushgoblins, prophetic shellfish, and sentient shadows. La Llorona, the woman doomed to perpetual tears, weeps ”bitterly and freely, runny-nosed and moaning and half-laughing, the heavy grunting laughter of grief, the way you weep only when you are certain that you are absolutely alone, letting out the sadness in all its ugliness and animal strength.” In passages such as that, the author’s gifts for metaphor and description hold the spiraling fantasy together, the humble giving human shape to the unreal. It’s clear he’s got a truer ear than J.K. Rowling.
But is ”Summerland” really a kids’ book? (If so, it’s surely the first to use the phrase ”maximum entropy.”) By calling it such, Chabon gives himself prosaic license to indulge in open-hearted hokeyness and reflexive nostalgic revelry, but he’s also navigating the mainstream of American fiction — considering the uses of enchantment as seriously as Jonathan Franzen (who niftily riffed on Narnia in ”The Corrections”) and wondering hard about traditions ”falling indelibly into the past” (to use a phrase from the diamond setting of Don DeLillo’s ”Underworld”). The book is Chabon’s Little League swing at the great American novel. He gets a stand-up double.