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Center Field

I like this New York Times review

Choosing Sides
By Robert Lipsyte


280 pp. HarperTeen/ HarperCollins Publishers. $16.99. (Ages 12 and up)

Robert Lipsyte’s superb young adult novel “Center Field” makes you wonder if it’s possible to be neglected and smothered at the same time. Mike Semak, the hero, is basically home alone. His parents, at once overly solicitous and absent, fret over every detail of his high school career while spending all their time at their new flooring store. A passing altercation in a hallway with another student draws threats of lawsuits and criminal charges. Mike’s baseball team, and apparently much of his school, Ridgedale High, is run by Coach Cody, a mysterious former Army Ranger hired as dean of discipline because “there had been gang violence and drug dealing in nearby New Jersey towns. The school board was afraid it would spread to Ridgedale.”

Cody responded by starting a network of student snitches and instituting “zero tolerance policies. He searched kids, busted into lockers, shut down the school newspaper when it complained.” This brought more threats of lawsuits, but nothing came of it after Cody found a pistol on a student.

The theme of rigid control and de facto neglect is a constant in “Center Field.” Mike, a high school junior, and his friends seem to be raising themselves. They scrounge their own meals, or microwave dinners left by ever busy parents. They drive themselves most places, arrange their own crowded schedules. Their virginity seems long gone; sex is not even that big a deal. No adult is ever present at their parties. Or perhaps these kids are already the adults, as in one subtle aside when our hero sounds like nothing so much as a middle-aged suburban homeowner, preparing for a get-together: “ ‘C’mon, Ry,’ said Mike, pulling on Ryan’s arm. ‘We got to bring up the booze.’ ”

In this, as in so much else, Lipsyte is pitch-perfect. A former sports reporter and columnist for The New York Times and the author of seven previous young adult novels, Lipsyte expertly conveys the banality of Mike’s prematurely grown-up world once the party starts: “He let the music wash over him, mostly Lil Potz and Pug Brown being horn-dogs and Kallie D. singing about doing a girl and a guy the same night and not seeing the difference. He didn’t much like the music, but after a couple of beers it didn’t bother him.”

It’s a moment, free of theatrics, that makes you want to weep for these jaded-sounding kids. And yet Mike and his friends are not drug addicts or budding juvenile delinquents. They act responsibly enough, have deep interests in school and the greater world around them; they are likable and engaged in traditional high school pastimes, from baton-twirling to saving the planet.

Mike’s own world revolves around following his favorite major-league player, Billy Budd — the rather vacuous star center fielder for the Yankees, whose public relations machine churns out endless electronic advice for “young ballers” — and Mike’s quest to become the varsity center fielder, a goal he’s been working toward “all his life.”

He loves everything about center field, right down to the John Fogerty tune of that name, “the greatest song ever written” (amen). Mike describes playing it as “being on top of the world. . . . It’s open and clean, no foul lines or crazy angles or base runners, just you and the ball.”

Yet he is about to encounter all sorts of foul lines and crazy angles. A new student from the Dominican Republic, who may or may not be an illegal immigrant, arrives at Ridgedale High, challenging Mike for the coveted position (and trailing intimations of hardship and self-sufficiency that even the most prematurely adult student in the Jersey suburbs can only guess at). Then there’s Mike’s forced interaction with the “pukes” (nerds) from the Cyber Club, an enigmatic new love interest and Coach Cody’s attempt to ensnare him in one his intrigues.

Mike not only has to figure out what he wants and where his loyalties lie, but he must also articulate these things to himself and others. He must decide whom he can rely on and if there’s more to life than Billy Budd’s aphorisms.

The reference to Melville’s novel seems a stretch too far even for Joe DiMaggio, and everything gets wrapped up perhaps a tad too neatly. But along the way, Lipsyte’s storytelling is riveting, his characters are complex and nuanced, and the suburban ambience he recreates is spot-on. With its neglected teenagers, its distracted and overworked adults and its scheming, self-serving authority figures who excuse their every transgression in the name of “security,” the suburb of Ridgedale could be a metaphor for America in the 21st century.

That might be reading too much into it. But to paraphrase Fogerty, beat the drum and hold the phone; Robert Lipsyte could be center field on any team of young adult writers I could name.
Kevin Baker is a co-author, with Danijel Zezelj, of the graphic novel “Luna Park.”