Faces in the Crowd

August 23, 2012

afaceinthecrowdBaseball is a leisurely sport. There are no scrambles in front of the net, no breakaways. No rushing the quarterback or interceptions returned for a touchdown. When one team is at bat, the other can’t score. It’s a bit like checkers, and the pacing of the game can be controlled by an individual player.

This means there’s plenty of time for spectators to do other stuff. Go to the concession stands or the restroom. Read. In Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, Stephen King discusses how he multitasks while watching games. He can read two pages of a book during a commercial break, which can add up to as much as 40 pages per game. He also plays the Face Game, which is something like the Drinking Game. He awards himself points for spotting spectators behind home plate doing specific things: talking on a cell phone, picking their nose.

In his May 20th, 2004 entry in Faithful, he writes that he had a great idea for a story about a guy who watches a lot of baseball on TV, perhaps because he’s a shut-in or an invalid. One night he sees his best friend from childhood, who was killed in a car crash, sitting behind home plate. The friend still looks like he’s ten. From that night on, the protagonist sees the kid at every game, at different stadiums, and each night there are more dead friends and relatives sitting around him. “I think it’s a very nasty little idea,” King writes.

This is a rare instance where we know the exact moment when King had a story idea. However, eight years later he was still grappling with it. At a February 2012 appearance at the Savannah Book Festival, he repeated the idea and offered it to the audience. “You guys write it,” he said. “I can sort of smell old TV dinners in his house. There’s all this crap on the counters because nobody really likes this guy…Here’s what’s interesting to me. There are all these people behind the guy who’s batting. The people in the audience. What if this guy started to see all these people in his life that are now dead in the stands at all these different baseball games? Would there be a story in that? Well, I can’t figure it out. You figure it out.”

In the audience that night was Stewart O’Nan, King’s Faithful co-author. Apparently their mutual love for baseball and writing fired up their creative juices, because they collaborated to develop and finish the story a few months later. “A Face in the Crowd” was released on August 21 as an eBook and an audiobook read by Craig Wasson.

The protagonist is a widower named Dean Evers, a snowbird from New England who was (of course) a Red Sox fan but who now roots for the Devil Rays. He’s been watching a lot of baseball since his wife died from a stroke. The first person he recognizes behind home plate is his childhood dentist, who looks exactly the way Evers remembers him from fifty years ago.

The next night he sees his old business partner, whose funeral he attended. Then he sees a 10-year-old boy who drowned when Evers was a school kid. Is the boy—who Evers and his friends bullied—pointing at the playing field, or through the camera at Evers?

Evers wonders if he’s suffering from dementia or a nervous breakdown. He has no one to share his dilemma with, so he tranquilizes himself with scotch and his wife’s left-over Ambien so he can sleep. He tries to stop watching games, but he can’t resist. When he next turns the TV on, he discovers he’s been missing a potential no-hitter. Soon he sees another familiar face, and the story goes into “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” territory. Just when Evers thinks that things can’t get any weirder, the strangeness quotient goes up another notch and suddenly it’s like “Shatterday” crossed with “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” and Lost.

King has been writing a lot about characters in their twilight years lately. It’s fascinating to see how he and O’Nan fleshed out Evers’ character, from the vague concept of a lonely man with nothing to do except watch televised ball games into a full-fledged person with a complex, detailed and credible past, revealed through reminiscences inspired by the people he sees. It’s a poignant story about a life revisited. About triumphs and regrets. And about baseball. Lots and lots of baseball!

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