Butterfly Winter: A Novel
By W.P. Kinsella
Magic has long played a prominent role in the world of W.P. Kinsella, where Iowa cornfields come to life and obsessed fans travel through cracks in time to witness epic baseball battles. In "Butterfly Winter," his first novel in 15 years, he kicks the hoodoo up a notch, handing the job of primary storyteller over to a baseball-evangelist-turned-wizard from the enchanted Caribbean nation of Courteguay.
The wizard, who goes by many names and has served at least one stint as El Presidente of this tiny banana republic (or "passion fruit republic," as the wizard insists, as there are no bananas grown there) located on Hispaniola between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, proves an unreliable narrator in telling his story to an inquisitive gringo journalist. "I always tell people what they want to hear," the wizard says, "whether it is truth or fiction."
The journalist, while interested in the history of Courteguay generally, is specifically intrigued by the Pimental brothers, Julio and Esteban, who played for 20 years in the U.S. major leagues, beginning when they were just 10, thanks to doctored paperwork that nudged them up to legal signing age. Julio, who began pitching to Esteban when the two were still in their mother's womb, is nearly unhittable, provided he is pitching to his brother, a woeful hitter who would never make a roster if not for the fact that the two come as a package deal.
The wizard cites the birth of the twins as his first great triumph. Their talent is recognizable instantly. And if there had been any question that they were born to play, the midwife's discovery of the two miniature baseball gloves and the tiny cumquat-sized baseballs inside their mother dispelled it completely. Three times a day the babies are put on display playing catch in their yard, tickets sold per arrangement of the wizard, who acts as their agent, always making sure to take a generous cut for himself.
While Julio, even from a young age, is fascinated by women, Esteban proves more cerebral, spending his free time visiting with the island's priests, who by presidential edict have been imprisoned behind 14-foot-high chain-link fences. He discusses theology, philosophy, and metaphysics with them from the time he is three years old, and they loan him books that would challenge grown men.
The boys return each offseason to Courteguay, ignoring the constant political turmoil and regular overthrows of the government. One winter Julio meets and falls in love with Quita, the daughter of former Courteguayan baseball great Milan Garza. They consummate their union high in the hills under skies so thick with monarch butterflies the sun is blotted out by their fluttering wings. Julio and Quita pass the winter under a blanket of butterflies, emerging in the spring just in time for him to return to the States.
Quita's subsequent encounter with the wicked Dr. Noir, a sadistic former chiropractor who has taken over as dictator of Courteguay, spawns the only dramatic tension in a book that deals more in fantastic yarns and wild stories, many of which wander off the thin plot for no apparent reason other than to add more brushstrokes to the colorful Courteguayan canvas Kinsella has painted. Among the 78 mini chapters are digressions on a player who pees ice water, an outfielder who rusts in the rain, and a crop of tropical plants that procreate with an endangered tribe of jungle women.
The writing is enriched by vintage Kinsella descriptions. The city of San Cristobel is baked by "a carnivorous sun." En route to Courteguay, the young wizard encounters "fundamentalists so narrow they could look through a keyhole with both eyes." The boys' father would wake at night, his head overflowing with visions, "his mind like a box of photographs scattered callously on a floor." A deposed general "was dressed in camouflage fatigues, his beard ragged as Spanish moss hanging from a tree branch."
Despite the frequent lyrical bursts, "Butterfly Winter" does not stand with Kinsella's strongest work. "Shoeless Joe" ranks among the greatest baseball novels ever written, and "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" better blends magic with a thinking, feeling protagonist the reader can latch onto. "Butterfly Winter" lacks that central figure. Whose story is this? The wizard's? The gringo journalist's? Julio's? Esteban's? Courteguay's? Is it a baseball story or the tale of a mystical jungle nation? The only thing we know for sure is we're not in Iowa anymore.