Parents Behaving Badly: A Novel by Scott Gummer
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2011
List Price: $23.00
Youth sports, in all flavors, are frequently not the bastion of innocence we typically wish they were. Coaches and parents entrusted with molding young minds too often prove unworthy role models, making youth baseball fertile ground for a good lampooning.
Scott Gummer, who has coached kids at a variety of levels, trained his sights on these out-of-control adults in “Parents Behaving Badly,” a novel that takes ludicrous behavior to the extreme. Gummer zings everyone and everything connected to youth baseball in a story that reads as a cross between “Desperate Housewives” and “The Bad News Bears.”
Ben Holden, the hero of the tale, has just moved back to Palace Valley, Calif., with his wife and three kids after a long stint on the East Coast. Most of his old classmates never left. When his boys, ages 12 and 6, turn out for Little League, Ben is reunited with old friends, each measuring their self-worth vicariously through their children’s sports. After the bully in charge of his older son’s team is suspended for kicking his own son following a loss, Ben volunteers to take over as coach, with the devious motive of making the sport fun for the kids again. The team loses nearly every game, causing a near riot among the parents, who finally all see the light after a close loss in the season finale.
There’s certainly a laudable message in there. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the book. The story is stocked with clichéd characters straight out of sitcom central casting. There’s Ben’s hard-nosed father “Coach,” who skippered the local high school squad for 50 years until dying of a heart attack shortly after his son’s return. The immature and somewhat idiotic older brother Fred, and the attractive ultrasound technician whose attempts to seduce Ben briefly threaten his marriage.
Del Mann, the original coach of the 12-year-old team, is so over the top that he’s a caricature of the worst that youth sports could ever offer—at least until his miraculous and instantaneous late-season transformation. On the flip side, we have the too-good-to-be-true major league superstar Homer King (his real name!), who had been taken in by Coach as a 16-year-old after his father killed his mom. Not just a great ballplayer, Homer is also People magazine’s sexiest man alive. Much later in the story, for no apparent reason, he comes out of the closet as a homosexual and is never referenced again.
Too many characters, and too much of the action are introduced for the sole purpose of setting up a punch line. In the first chapter alone (11 pages), we meet 23 characters (24 including the family dog), some of whom we never see again after the second chapter. Most splash onto the scene in one paragraph that concludes with a joke of some sort. Typical is Ben’s brother-in-law, Paul Aycock, who grew up without learning the proper way to hold a football. His main function seems to be setting up a potential side-splitter of a hyphenated last name, Holden-Aycock. The audio version should come with a drummer, banging out a rimshot on every third sentence. Some of the lines are humorous, but too many are familiar, and they disrupt the flow of the story.
Gummer’s writing frequently reminds the reader that this isn’t a real universe inhabited by real people. It’s possible a kid could tweet, “This party blows, but Tommy’s mommy’s a hottie!” It’s less likely that he would be 6 (and spell every word correctly), and less likely still that Tommy’s sister Kate, 14, would happen to be following him on Twitter and see it, especially given she has no idea who he is.
The 6-year-olds may be a little more advanced in Palace Valley than in other towns. Ben’s son Tommy writes and reads a touching speech at his grandfather’s funeral. Later, during baseball tryouts, he catches all three fly balls hit to him in center field, including one Willie Mays style, and cleanly picks all three ground balls he takes at short—though he did throw one away. He also rakes line drives in his tryout at-bats.
Several other baseball details simply don’t add up. Elder son Andrew, who was eager to go out for Little League despite displaying little acumen for the game, is set up as bottom-of-the-order fodder. In the first game of the season, he outrages his coach by failing to drop a bunt, instead grounding weakly to first for the second out of the inning. Unfortunately, there had already been a double play in the inning, so not only did the coach, who tolerates no mistakes from his players, lose track of outs, so did the author. So in love are they with the bunt play that they try again with the next hitter, with two (actually three) outs. Andrew is entrusted to pitch late in a subsequent game because the “bottom half” of the opposing team’s order is due up. The first batter walks, the next two make outs, then he gives up a single, bringing up the No. 8 hitter. For those doing the math, the bottom of the order started with the cleanup hitter.
Another inconsistency that should have been caught somewhere along the line: Ben’s throwing up on a kid’s face when he was 12, “before the advent of camcorders,” yet being humiliated by a clip when he got kicked in the mouth and knocked unconscious during an elementary school play that wound up on “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” a cruel turn that “made brilliant video for early adopter parents with toaster-sized camcorders.” Which is it? Did they exist yet or not?
You also find numerous places where Gummer switches point of view from one paragraph to the next. The general rule for fiction: one point of view per scene. Within one three-paragraph span in the ninth chapter we move through no less than five points of view, a most egregious—and dizzying—case of “head-hopping.”
I had hopes for this one, which was released by an imprint of Simon & Schuster and touted on the cover by the likes of Tom Perrotta. It feels like Gummer is trying to emulate writers like Perrotta or Jonathan Tropper at times, but he just doesn’t pull it off. The “youth sports should be fun” message is too deeply buried in sophomoric humor and sexual angst (from the parents, not the kids) to work. Stripped to its core there’s a story here that could resonate. Like the blundered two-out bunt attempt, it’s just not executed.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.