Batting Against Castro by Jim Shepard (1996) 197 p.

Jim Shepard is widely regarded alongside Tobias Wolff as one of America’s finest living short story writers. As with Wolff, he first came to my attention in university when I read his brilliant short story Love and Hydrogen, about a pair of clandestine lovers on the doomed voyage of the Hindenburg. As with Wolff, it’s somehow taken seven years for me to actually bother to find a full collection of his stories and read them.

Batting Against Castro is his first collection of stories, and while it’s good, it doesn’t quite reach the heights which I know his later work does. There are only two particularly good stories in here: Spending The Night With The Poor, an agonisingly awkward account of a teenage girl’s sleepover at her poverty-stricken friend’s house, and Mars Attacks, which recounts a man’s relationship with his troubled brother by describing the trading cards they collected as children which depicted a cartoonish assault on Earth by Martian invaders. Some of the stories are technically accomplished but left me feeling cold – I think Krakatau, the final story in the book, is probably an objectively great story, but the theme of troubled families had worn out its welcome by then. Similarly, there are some stories (such as the title one, which finds its American narrator literally batting against a young Fidel Castro when he plays baseball in pre-revolutionary Cuba) which are deeply immersed in the lore of American sports; as with the movie Field of Dreams, I suspect you kinda have to be American to get what they’re all about. But overall it was a decent first outing for Jim Shepard, and I’ll pick up his later books.