In 1997, beloved Western Canadian novelist and short-story writer W.P. Kinsella suffered head trauma when he was struck by a car, an accident that seemed to put an end to his writing career. As if to disprove the naysayers (including, incidentally, the author himself), Kinsella is back at age 76 with his first novel in 13 years.
Butterfly Winter, which won the second annual Colophon Prize from Enfield & Wizenty (the prize offers publication and a $5,000 advance), focuses on one of Kinsella’s great loves: baseball. Unfortunately, this new novel is something of a jumble, lacking the elegance of the game it celebrates. Nor does it have the romance of Kinsella’s most famous work, the 1982 novel Shoeless Joe. By contrast, Butterfly Winter contains a surprising amount of violence: one of its characters is a nasty politician who went to chiropractic school simply to learn how to hurt people in the most efficient and painful way.
The heart of the book is Julio Pimental, a stellar baseball pitcher, and his twin brother, Esteban. Julio is a prodigy, but his one defect is that he can pitch only when his brother, who can catch but not hit, is behind home plate. The boys play catch in the womb, causing their mother Fernandella much pain, and their baseball prowess is evident when they are infants (Esteban stays in a catcher’s crouch until he is three).
The boys hail from a poor family in Courteguay, a fictional country sandwiched between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Baseball is Courteguay’s national passion, to the extent that games decide who is eligible to marry whom.
The country’s involvement with the sport has a long and colourful history. Baseball was introduced to Courteguay by Sandor Boatly, a Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. who witnessed his first game in Rhode Island in 1887, when he was 11 years old. The child became transfixed by the beauty of the game, adopted the manner of a preacher, spreading the gospel of baseball like a sporty Johnny Appleseed. Sandor eventually landed in Courteguay, having hooked up with a group of Pentecostal missionaries searching for some lost colleagues there.
Kinsella takes the reader on a wild ride through Courteguay’s history and that of the Pimental brothers, looping back and forth in time without a clearly discernable pattern. It is possible that the apparently random ordering of the novel’s 78 brief chapters is an attempt at postmodernism, but Kinsella also throws in two alternating narrators – known only as “the Wizard” and “the Gringo Journalist” – and elements of magic realism, resulting in a chaotic pastiche. The magic realism in particular is overdone in the novel: wondrous butterflies and ghosts mingle with religion and politics in a big, steamy stew of imagination run wild.
The Wizard, whose identity shifts throughout the novel (thereby frequently destabilizing any sense of continuity) becomes Corteguay’s El Presidente, displacing the country’s Old Dictator. This allows Kinsella to shoehorn in a great deal of commentary about political power and what people do to get and keep it. The Wizard’s arch-enemy, Dr. Lucius Noir, head of the secret police under the Old Dictator, overthrows his boss, bans baseball, and tries to install soccer as the national sport. At one point all the priests are locked up. Noir’s political machinations include torture and murder, things that are certainly found in the real world but seem jarring in a novel that is otherwise mostly comic. The Wizard’s shifting identity reveals nuances of ugliness over the course of the novel, and consequently, negativity prevails in an unedifying manner.
Perhaps as a result of living under such unpleasantness, the Pimental brothers seem to long for something meaningful in their lives – Esteban ponders the priesthood, for example – but that something never presents itself. Except, that is, in the form of the sport residing at the novel’s heart. The whole book is basically an ornate shrine to the glory of baseball; the problem being that baseball is portrayed as a microcosm of Corteguay at large – competitive, greedy, and heartless.
Butterfly Winter has way too much going on to be ultimately satisfying. It’s as if Kinsella took every possible literary technique he could think of and crammed them in. But the writing tends to the pedestrian, and apart from playing spot-the-technique-or-allusion, I found the narrative annoying. Dedicated fans of Kinsella or of baseball fiction may discover glimmers of a rewarding novel, but they are limited and buried under a wall of words that clutter the page and derail the enjoyment of reading.