By Russell Rowland
Bangtail Press, 2013
List Price: $16.95
There's a tremendous difference between running away from your problems and escaping them. After relocating from New England to the Rockies, Pete Hurley, the protagonist in Russell Rowland's novel "High and Inside," finds the silence of Big Sky Country only amplifies the noise in his head. The former Red Sox pitcher has never come to terms with the errant fastball that ended the career of a promising Yankee infielder—nor any of the subsequent turmoil that has commandeered his life since.
Hurley arrives in Montana with his faithful three-legged dog, Dave, intent on constructing a house with his own hands, despite a complete lack of any relevant experience. Alone on his plot of land several miles outside of Bozeman, he wrestles with his regrets, dulling the ache with alcohol, which only serves to defer the healing process.
Hurley's thirst and bad-boy, Harley-riding persona make it easy for the media to vilify him for what many perceived as an intentional, retaliatory beanball. They rally around the episode to spawn a new rule—the Pete Hurley rule—calling for swift justice in the form of a 20-game suspension for any pitcher who purposely throws at a batter's head. It's not a disciplinary action or even his critics that drive him from the game, however. It's the yips. Unable to face batters following the fateful pitch, Hurley walks away from baseball less than a year after helping the Red Sox win the World Series.
Prone to bingeing on alcohol until he blacks out, Hurley awakes one morning to learn he has paralyzed his ex-girlfriend, the younger sister of his best friend, whose family had taken him in as a teen when his father died. With nothing but regret anchoring him to Massachusetts, he sells off nearly everything he owns and heads west, following his sister and her husband, who settled in Bozeman a decade earlier.
Rowland, who was born in Bozeman, paints it as a beautiful yet daunting area, where the long, harsh winters are part of the bargain.
"My land is lush," Hurley narrates. "It's green, thick with grass, brush, and a stand of sturdy pine. It smells of fresh, moist soil. The Bridger Mountains are not close, but they are extremely present, their rocky peaks angular across the horizon. When I stand in the middle of my land, I'm amazed how much I feel the mountains. Without them, my land would be more vulnerable, and less beautiful. The mountains provide a visual image of something—what to expect, maybe. Hopes. Dreams. In open spaces, there is too much unknown."
While the landscape may be inviting, several locals come off as leery of outsiders, even—or perhaps particularly—those with a major league resume.
Of course, by the time Hurley hits Montana, baseball is only something he used to do. Part of the appeal of the homesteader lifestyle is the anonymity he hopes to find, not to mention the opportunity to reinvent himself.
"The West has a long history of providing people with the illusion of being able to recreate their identity," Rowland says. "It’s been true ever since the West was 'settled.' And it still is. There’s a well-known mystery writer who showed up in Wyoming a few years ago claiming to be a former New York City police officer. After he became famous for his books, it came out that he was never a cop at all. He was a security guard in a museum. But nobody out here cares. He still sells like crazy."
While the baseball is essential to the back story, this is really a tale of personal struggle. Man versus himself. How much must Hurley lose before finally accepting responsibility for his actions and how they impact those who love him? Rowland borrows from his own past here, drawing upon his battle with alcoholism to get inside Hurley's head on the days when there's nothing he wants more than a drink. Or ten.
"One of my main goals with this story was to give people some insight into what it's like to be an alcoholic and have people wonder why you don't get help," Rowland says. "It's so hard to watch people who are in that position, and when you're caught up in it, you just don't see it the same way everyone else does. So I wanted to try and capture that frame of mind in a way that might help people understand what the hell is going on in someone's head when they can't stop."
Though the topic is serious, Rowland sprinkles humor throughout, most notably in the quotes that open each chapter, purportedly from ESPN shows like Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn, weaving the fictional Hurley into a realistic, reality-TV-mad sports world. Athletes with his penchant for disaster are typical fodder for such programs, and Rowland captures the style of the hosts in his one liners.
The novel grew out of a short story Rowland penned more than 20 years ago. In the interval he revised it, put it aside to write a critically acclaimed epic called "In Open Spaces" and its sequel, and came back to Hurley, determined to find a publisher. In the end, Bozeman's own Bangtail Press took it on, granting Pete Hurley his long-sought admission into the pantheon of flawed and fallen baseball heroes.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.