by Chris Ludovici
Unsolicited Press, 376 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in professional sports. A fastball travels at 90 miles per hour, moving from the pitcher’s mitt to the catcher’s glove in approximately .44 seconds. If the batter blinks, he’ll miss. For the last few feet that the ball travels, it is essentially invisible to the hitter. He has to have made his decision by then, whether to swing, how he’ll swing.
I did not know anything about baseball when I picked up Chris Ludovici’s The Minors. Nick Rogers, one of the protagonists, reflects on the difficulty of hitting a baseball, and I ended up spending too much time engrossed in an ESPN Sport Science episode checking Nick’s information. It turns out that, football fanatic though I am, the fastball is a formidable opponent: 90 mph is a frightening, lethal speed, and statistically speaking, it is almost impossible to hit.
However, when we meet Nick in The Minors, baseball is part of Nick’s past, thanks to a shoulder injury. Back home and living with an aunt, the 28-year-old Nick tries to forge ahead by working as a contractor and living a self-serving life dating a succession of girls (most of whom, he claims, came onto him and not the other way around).
Until he is hired by the Heller family. Ludovici’s other protagonist is 16-year-old Sam Heller, whose family is preparing to move to Chicago. Sam’s father has relocated ahead of the family, and it is left to Sam’s mother to get the house fixed up and sold while shepherding Sam through her junior year of high school and keeping up with Sam’s eight-year-old brother, Oscar. Sam is a reflective young woman trying to navigate the abandonment she feels at her father’s moving ahead to Chicago, the alienation she feels from her mother (who she is sure only tries to make her life harder) and her emerging identity as someone very different from either her father or her mother.
Ludovici has given Sam a complex character befitting her age; her internal monologue moves between both narcissism and the philosophic questioning of reality that is part of adolescence, making her believable and interesting. When we first meet Sam, she is ruminating on her impulse to try a cigarette, even though she knows she shouldn’t, and her internal debate covers everything from health to what she learned in psychology class to the sex appeal of oral habits:
So sometimes, when faced with a decision, she froze. Was her desire to smoke the next logical step in some long chain of desires that was set in motion when she was just a baby? Or was it some desperate, pointless attempt on her part to rebel from whatever programming was driving her these last sixteen years? How could she ever know?
Sam is never sure she knows, but she tries hard to discover what the rational system is that makes the adult world make sense, instead of trying to force reality to always fit her own childish wishes. Her self-awareness is unique, perhaps not entirely adolescent, but that is part of what I would say might make The Minors a great book even for teenagers. Sam doesn’t just want to rise above her youth, but wants to become someone she is happy being:
It was all a question of identity. Who did she want to be? Did she want to be the girl who, when faced with a situation she didn’t like, threw a big fit and made everyone around her miserable? Like her mother? […] Or did she want to be more like her dad? Someone who rolled with things, worked with them, found the good in everything and focused on that.
At the same time that Sam is trying so hard to understand herself, her limited understanding of what the adult world is like causes her to constantly stumble: She has misunderstood her mother’s motivations and she has oversimplified her dad’s reasons for “rolling with things.”
Nick is the contractor hired to fix up the house, from renovating a bathroom to fixing kitchen tile and rebuilding the old deck. In the Heller house, Nick feels needed and takes on some of the responsibilities of a big brother and father: he instructs Oscar about baseball, teaches Sam how to drive, and enjoys Liz’s nonjudgmental counsel about his girlfriends. For a short time, the Heller family takes on an unconventional form, and it changes Nick and Sam and their understanding of adulthood and relationships.
“What’s the deal with you and these people?” asks Nick’s aunt as he becomes more and more involved with the Hellers. Nick initially lacks the self-awareness to fully understand what is it with him and “these people,” and how quickly initial connection becomes affection, and how quickly affection becomes the responsibility. Like Sam, Nick possesses believably contradictory qualities. While he is brutally judgmental of wealthy white-collar men like Steve Heller (the first time he meets Steve he wonders, “What kind of a dickhead put product in his hair on a Sunday morning?”) he is deeply empathetic about the work that a mother like Liz does in raising her children, even while he is an insensitive jerk in his own dating relationships with girls.
The Minors is essentially a coming-of-age story, but it is unique in that “coming-of-age” is not restricted to the teenage character, Sam. Sam and Nick take turns telling the story, and both must “grow up” in different ways. Their perceptions and relational needs make these two connect with each other and ricochet off each other in sweet and painful ways: their relationship has overtones of sibling, parent, and suitor. Unfortunately, in such a complicated relationship it is hard to do everything right. It might be easier to hit a fastball than to always make the right moves in family life or know how to best care for loved ones.
This is a character-driven story, and Sam and Nick and the others have the nuance and beauty that comes from genuine affection on the part of the author. Such writerly love is infectious; it only took a few pages for me to care about Nick and Sam. The story’s premise about the nature of people and adulthood is fundamentally compassionate; people aren’t bad, Nick contends, they’re “just stupid.” They make mistakes and stumble through their relationships. In The Minors, coming of age is the acknowledgment that no one has really made it out of “the minors,” that everyone is trying their hardest and there are good moments and bad moments to life. When Liz describes her own coming of age, she says:
I thought there was going to be some corner I turned or switch I flipped and I would just be an adult. But it never happened. Instead, I was just the same old me, but I was doing grown up things. I was the same silly girl inside, but I was cleaning my house instead of an apartment; I was driving around suburban streets instead of city ones. There were times I felt like an adult, sometimes when I was with Sam or Oscar […] But even then there was a part of me that was always aware that I was doing these things that I was just unprepared for, that I had no business actually doing. That’s what I think adulthood really is—it’s just little kids playing dress-up.
For a teenager like Sam, internalizing this kind of compassionate view of others as “unprepared” means rejecting the narcissism of adolescence and embracing forgiveness. For Nick, this also means rejection of his old narcissism, but we’re not sure where the rest of his “adult” life will take him. I wouldn’t mind finding out where Nick goes in future books or short stories.
The baseball analogy is not overdone in the book; I’m actually harping on it more than Ludovici does, simply because I like it. This is Ludovici’s first novel, and it reminded me strongly of The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, another debut novel about a family, with well-written characters and an apt sports metaphor. I noticed however that this is not Ludovici’s first time writing a compelling younger female character: he has a short story in the second issue of Cleaver featuring Daisy, a fourth grader who has to figure out the difference between “being cool,” and being “awesome.” The Minors is a pleasure to read because of Ludovici’s capacity to give nuance to the experience of growing up and also being an adult. He makes us wonder, Is it different? Don’t we “grown-ups” know exactly what both Daisy and Sam are talking about?
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area. Read other reviews by Ryan here.
You may also like: