You can take the pitch out of Puppy, but you can’t take Puppy out of the pitch.
As every American knows, the game of baseball comes in both a hardball and softball version. One version pitches overhand; the other gives an underhand delivery. The compare/contrast between these two versions of our National Pastime ironically offers a useful allegory to the two types of dystopian societies that exist in Gary Morgenstein’s novel A Fastball for Freedom, the second installment of the Dark Depths Trilogy.
In this installment Puppy Nedick, former pitcher of the erstwhile Yankees, is a key player in the fates of both the elitist society that governs America, known as the Family, and the Caliphate, which runs most of the rest of the world. It falls on Puppy to deliver the perfect pitch to save the world from further war and destruction…and to save the game of baseball itself.
The year is 2098. Through the two competing social orders of the Family and the Caliphate, the reader is introduced to two versions of the same strategy-defined game: tyranny. One is a hard tyranny, which occupies Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and even South America. This is the Caliphate, and it has its hold of the masses by the unforgiving playbook of Sharia law.
The other government is an underhanded, soft tyranny. North Americans are lost in its grip. Although the Family is so named to invoke a sense of soothing support, with its founding benefactress called Grandma, there are strident requirements tucked into every facet of Family life. Through relentless bureaucracy where every aspect of the culture is micro-managed, and enforced by a face-shrouded armed force called Black Tops, it is a soft despotism delivered with scary velocity. No one except the star players (Grandma’s elite class, known as Cousins) seem to be able to make swings at opportunities and advance bases in its game, in spite of the fact that they preach an inclusivity where everyone’s race, color, creed, and sexuality should all have same value. All morals are equal, except where the Family’s rules say otherwise.
In fact, if the Family were itself a baseball team, Puppy would ordinarily be just one of the many players that has been relegated to warm the bench in the dugout of life. He was a known personality from his former baseball-playing days, but he was never a member of the inner circle of the Family. At one point Puppy even ponders the Family’s moratorium against people like him (“Grandma was wise to ban celebrity,” Puppy ponders in Chapter Sixteen) yet he struggles with this. He vacillates between two hopes: wishing he could avoid the demands of fame, and the hope of utilizing his fame to contribute to good causes. The advancement of baseball, of course, is his favorite cause.
But mediocrity is not what Puppy was meant for. Fate would bring him the opportunity of a more significant role: he was meant to be a star pitcher, and his destiny will not be denied. It would be realized, ironically, in a scheme by none other than the one responsible for the demise of baseball: Grandma. At her whim, she found she needed his celebrity, still carrying over from his pitching days, to help her with a campaign for a peace settlement with the Caliphate.
Yet one Cousin, called Uncle Albert, prefers war over peace. Grandma’s plan involved negotiations with Abdullah (aka “The Son”), a leader of the Caliphate who desires to bring an end to the tyrannical extremism that has taken over the Caliphate rule.
Any plans for a parley and peace is not what Uncle Albert has in mind. Killing Grandma becomes his solution. Because of this, Grandma is murdered, and in the process Puppy’s celebrity is destroyed by being accused of her death.
And Baseball, a defunct game that Grandma had decided to revive, is again left for dead.
This is Where Our Story Resumes…
Grandma, it turns out, threw Uncle Albert an Uncle Charlie.
(For those unfamiliar with baseball slang, an Uncle Charlie is another name for a curve ball. Pitcher Puppy Nedick is that curve ball.)
At the beginning of this installment of the Dark Depths series, our protagonist Puppy has snuck off to Caliphate-controlled England with his former wife Annette at his side. He is on a mission to resume those peace talks with Abdullah/The Son, although in this installment he has to navigate through a network of local Capliphate enforcement, controlled by the extremist Mufti, who oppose The Son’s reformation agenda.
Puppy is at a terrible disadvantage. All of his friends at home are dispersed, out of reach, and it is not long before he is under the control of Colonel Ali Basa, a man completely enslaved to an end-justifies-the-means cynicism. (“All evil is ultimately justified, Basa thought…we wrap it up so neatly…” is just one of his soulless musings in Chapter Twenty-five, as he learns about the information extraction results from the brutal torture and death of a young woman.)
Extreme moral breakdown is a problem of the leadership of the Caliphate as much as it is with the Family, although the areas of depravity are different for each. For Puppy and every other member of the book’s extensive and diverse cast of protagonist characters, the pursuit of peace is not the only goal to achieve. The destroyed remains of a world brought low by all the social engineering of one government and the abject terror campaign executed by the other government is another thing that needs to be overcome. In that, Puppy is not fighting alone. Every character in the book is engaging in their own personal struggle within their respective system to obtain what is real, what is good, and what is true.
A Diverse Cast of Characters
There are about three dozen incredible characters in this epic story, and we meet them in settings that range from the rubble-filled streets of America, occupied England with cathedrals converted to farm yards, religious oppression in Spain, and the northern coast of Africa with its Moorish landscape riddled with caves that are filled with formerly abused children. Each character is not only navigating their world to overcome a myriad of external challenges they face, they are also facing the unique struggle of who they are, who they are meant to be, and what is their real value.
Every single character is rich with quirky details and wonderful personality. There is a lot to get to know about in each one, and every single one is unique and worthy of exploration. The following six are singled out to provide good scope of Morgenstein’s use of character development and the importance he places on the personal, organic relationships that develop between characters in a world where the ruling class controls all relationships with destructive results.
Puppy Nedick and Annette Ramos
Puppy is, of course, our star player. As previously mentioned, Puppy’s mission may be a mission of peace, but baseball is his favorite cause. It is delightful to see Puppy turn his peace mission into a double play: a win for peace and a win for baseball reinstatement.
The usefulness of athletic contests to celebrate and promote peace between nations is as old as history itself. The Olympics were formed for such a cause. Puppy’s ability to accomplish this task has the added challenge of cooperating with his former wife Annette. She is there with him, and she has her own assertive opinion about how things should be accomplished.
Their ability to wrestle through their difficult situations, show grace over each other’s shortcomings and personality flaws, and grow stronger together through the process, is an exercise that demonstrates that love takes its own time to mature, develop, and grow: it is not something that bureaucratic agents could ever hope to control and direct. While external forces do indeed seek to achieve the Grand Mufti’s schemes while they are on their mission, Puppy and Annette make the choice to tackle the challenges thrown at them together, and they do it with an attitude of hope and love. It is infectious, and it positively impacts other characters whose lives they touch.
Hedda Kleinz and Clary Santiago
Hedda is a public school teacher at P.S. 81. To be a school teacher in Grandma’s world is really not to teach things like reading, writing, and arithmetic. The classroom is a place to be “introducing different thoughts” – that is to say, to introduce new social attitudes as new truth. But the classroom is still a place where it can be hoped that a teacher can still connect with young souls. Hedda’s heart yearns to impact students for the good of their future.
Hedda holds on to this dream: One day, when she is very old, she hopes for a former student to look her up and let her know how she touched that student’s soul, so long ago, leaving an indelible imprint. It is a fantasy that is undoubtedly common among all those who go into the teaching profession, but for Hedda it is the last and lonely hope that remains to her, and if it happens, it will verify that her life matters and has value.
Then comes young Clary into her classroom.
Clary is a caution. Her background is not fully known to Hedda, Clary being a fugitive orphan from Spain. The child is a survivor of atrocities done to the Christians in that country by the Mufti arm of the Caliphate, and Clary possesses knowledge of certain people and certain events that would be dangerous to certain circles if word of it were to get out.
In spite of the fact that Clary is also rather handy with a knife, Hedda has in Clary a student she believes is receptive to her help. At twelve years old, Clary has already seen the worst of humanity. It has given her an instinct to recognize which relationships are authentic, and which are not. Hedda’s desire to help Clary is sincere, and Clary responds in kind. They become a great support to each other.
Azhar Mustafa/Youssef Khadify and Omar Mustafa
Azhar desires an enlightened Caliphate, reformed from its atrocities and violence. He is loyal to Abdullah, the Caliphate leader that had been willing to negotiate peace with Grandma before her demise. Azhar is so loyal and so committed that he concedes to undergo plastic surgery to change his face and his name. He becomes Youssef Khadify in an undercover mission to connect with Puppy. As Youssef, he is able to pass as a Caliphate member in good standing with the extremist Mufti sect. He succeeds in getting assigned to the role of overseer to Puppy and Annette while they are under the control of Colonel Basa. While navigating a path to pursue this peace, he finds he must keep his true identity a secret from Puppy, Annette, the jaded-but-politically-expeditious Colonel Basa and the extremist local leadership…but it is also a secret he finds he must keep from someone else that he did not expect.
Not long after he succeeds in getting assigned to Puppy’s and Annette’s supervision, the two guards that were assigned to Puppy’s detail were replaced, and not with just anyone. They were replaced by one very radicalized young man, none other than Azhar’s own son, Omar, a recruit of the Junior Wing of the Martyr Brigade.
Omar is hellbent on “guarding the rapacious American Crusaders who defile our Prophet and our laws”(as he asserts in Chapter 20). Moderate Islam and Extremism Islam collide between father and son, and with this clash comes the larger struggle the world has with religion in general: it is either the most powerful tool for peace, or it is used as the most effective weapon to destroy it. The distinction between one and the other is whether it is governed by love or hate.
There are, of course, many other characters to explore in this novel, chock full of dimension and delight to amuse and entertain the reader. There is Pablo the Dentist, Zelda the New Mom (formerly known as Zelda the Hot Mess), the droid duo Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb, who give a delightful lesson in history and faith for Clary’s class (not permitted, of course, but in the dystopic world of the Family in 2098 it is apparently still easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission). Detectives Buca and L’Yor are not so bumbling as they snoop around to understand who Clary is and why Uncle Albert becomes so interested in her. Never the less, they bumble enough to remind the reader that we all tend to bumble through life as we seek out the answers that matter. And that’s okay, too.
Redeeming a Reward-less World
The common thread running through every single character in this book is that they are all aware, to one degree or another, the oppression that presses down on them.
As is often the case, it is the most cynical and consciously corrupted character in the book who seems most aware of the truth, even if his awareness of it, and his use of it, is quite warped and twisted. “Tyranny is often persuasive,” Basa remarks, “but it’s a flush of emotion, like first love. Then you must decide who does the dishes.”
His point in context (found in Chapter 12) is that at the end of the day, tyrannical governments can’t be all that bad because they have to be generally survivable. Someone has to be left alive, and with their arms and legs still attached, to pick up the trash on Wednesdays and Saturdays. By omission, therefore, he concedes that tyrannical constructs are designed to make reasonably-appeased minions, meant to merely survive and not thrive.
From this perspective we can see America is ruled under the guise of a euphemism-laden social engineering construct where old expressions of love for country and flag are verboten, all forms of racial and sexual expression are embraced (with the very pronounced exception of pedophilic predation – pedophilia is a crime that law enforcement and public services fixate on rooting out and preventing). All relationships are subject to intense scrutiny, with the objective to raise up a new crop of children, since the last crop was utterly demolished by nuclear attacks. The leadership is Grandma and the Cousins, and the rest of society are called Siblings.
In America, every sector is under the tight control of the engineered messaging and expectations of the ruling Family, which enforces a humanist worldview that would sound like kindness and love to those not living in it. To those that are subject to its constraints, however, the egalitarian-seeming social structure is one that in actuality causes separation and loneliness. It stimulates a conscious longing for the things that would give people a passion for living — including the game of baseball – but denies any satisfying outlet for it.
The first book in the Dark Depths series, A Mound Over Hell, takes a detailed tour of the bland existence of a world where every winnable goal is banned, mostly because honors and rewards imply that there are others unable to earn it. Any opportunity for a meritocracy is gone. Schoolwork is not even graded. In fact, there really is no schoolwork. No one is to feel better or worse than another, smarter or dumber, capable or incapable. It renders a world wherein no one is in touch with the spark of the divine in them. They are lucky if they have an occupation they can do well, to take some satisfaction in that. Otherwise, they are left to be stimulated by the average carnal pursuits: Sex and Rock and Roll. Drugs have no obvious place in society, presumably because the ingredients that are needed make them are used to make the synthetic food that is the subsistence of the whole nation after a nuclear holocaust demolished agriculture.
In essence, the story makes the case that overcoming tyranny, whether it is in the form of a severe religious extremism or if it is an inauthentic and artificial social engineering experiment, is the same game being played in two different ways. At the close of this book, we are left pondering the truth that pitchers usually fail to have good batting averages, and it makes for a sad rationale to consider that Puppy was destined to fail when it was his turn to be at bat. It looks like tyranny is destined to win. But, as they say, the game ain’t over ‘til the final out.
The inning has changed and returned Puppy back to the defense, and that is where good pitchers shine. It may feel like the bottom of the 9th with the bases loaded, but this is when the game gets good. Puppy’s lot is to make the pitch for a return to freedom, and the reader is not remiss to hope that he will pitch a perfect inning. We have good reason to not count Puppy out just yet.
As A Fastball for Freedom comes to a close, the reader leaves Puppy struggling with angst over whether he has probably left the world in a worse mess than it was before he started. But as we advance to the “third base” of Morgenstein’s Dark Depths series, I have no doubt that it will take us all the way home to a world where all the teeming masses roar in celebration together over a win shared by all. Freedom is the victory.
If there is an emerging moral of this story, it is this: that fighting against oppression and pursuing freedom, truth, and peace is, in fact, a team sport where everyone gets to play. Perhaps, as well, in the final inning of this story, Americans will be able to ditch the sinister Uncle Albert and return to an even better incarnation of Uncle Sam.
Consider this the Seventh Inning Stretch.
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