A deadly fastball in Denver: A review of The Ringer
304 pages, hardcover: $28.
The Permanent Press, 2011.
The slaying of a Mexican-American immigrant triggers parallel experiences of personal anguish, family discord and cultural dissonance, seen alternately through the eyes of the dead man's widow and the cop who shot him.
"His thoughts were a confusing jumble of elation, dread, relief and fear," Jenny Shank, an editor at NewWest.net books, writes in her debut novel, The Ringer. She's describing the reaction of Officer Ed O'Fallon after another cop initially takes the blame for Salvador Santillano's death. "Something didn't feel right about the whole thing ending so easily. ... The law wouldn't punish him, but maybe something else would."
That something else turns out to be "the ringer," Ray Santillano, Salvador's son. Ed's two sons belong to a youth baseball league -- and 12-year-old Ray throws a wicked fastball. Though his involvement in the league keeps Ray out of the neighborhood gang and his mind off his dead father, his fast pitch puts him within striking distance of his father's killer as the teams near the championship. At first unaware of what really happened, Ray explodes when he finds out, and goes after Ed.
The Ringer reveals a Denver split by race. Ed is a white middle-class cop who busts Hispanic gangs. The boys on the other teams tease Ray, calling him "Speedy Gonzales." And the police department faces off against the Hispanic community over Salvador's death. Only the humanity Shank has written into her central characters keeps readers from instinctively choosing sides. Salvador's widow, Patricia Maestas de Santillano, blames herself for his demise; she had kicked him out of their house because she mistakenly suspected him of keeping a second family in Mexico. After he pulls his gun on an old woman reaching for her inhaler and yells at children playing baseball like they're criminals during a raid, Ed begins to acknowledge that he's jumpy and short-tempered, and he starts to doubt the details of Salvador's death. Did Salvador really have a gun? he wonders. Did he really fire it? Were the other cops covering for him?
Shank refuses to whitewash her characters' flaws, but empathy infuses her portrait of two good people. Patricia and Ed are both trying to hold their families together while seeking absolution and justice for the death of an innocent man. The novel occasionally wanders off into a narrative vacuum, with ancillary characters who don't seem to exist outside of their relationships to Patricia and Ed. But Shank generally displays a good sense of craft. And she is at her best when focused on her central characters, particularly Salvador, whose death gives him the family and sense of honor that escaped him in life.