Strike out 

Russell Rowland's High and Inside doesn't connect

Almost as soon as Russell Rowland's High and Inside begins, its protagonist, Pete, gets punched in the face in a bar fight. "I see what's coming, but my reflexes aren't what they used to be, especially when I'm 'impaired,'" Pete says. "Before I have a chance to respond, a white light flashes through my head, an explosion so bright and powerful I have the momentary thought I'm dying."

Many of the characters in High and Inside seem to take an instant, strong dislike to Pete, a former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. The story begins as Pete moves to Bozeman, intending to buy a plot of land, build a house and, at the same time, build a new life for himself after years of alcohol-fueled downward spiraling. Some of the Montanans in the story are suspicious of this rich East-Coaster with a romantic vision of Big Sky Country, and as a native Montanan, it touched off my irritation, too.

There are moments in High and Inside that show a good observational eye, recording truths of the human condition as literature ought to do. Pete is depressed by rainy days, but another character responds that they can use it. "It's the predictable response of a Montana native, whether the climate has any bearing on his profession or not," Pete says. "The inbred awareness, passed for generation to generation, that moisture is always good."

The point of the story strikes true, as well: Pete thinks he can drive away from his problems, a tactic we've all tried in some form or another, and discovers he can't. I didn't like Pete, but I was still happy to see some eventual catharsis and redemption. High and Inside is also a quick read and well-paced; Rowland keeps his sentences neat and tailored.

This is the third novel from Rowland, who grew up in Bozeman and now teaches writing at Montana State University in Billings. Rowland's first novel, In Open Spaces, was well reviewed and made the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list, so I was surprised by how flimsy parts of High and Inside are constructed. When Pete meets a love interest, for instance, he's browsing around the property that he's just bought and she shoves a gun in his face and introduces herself as "Annie Oakley." We learn that she's a local lawyer with a tragic past, and later, she steals his dog from him and then lies about it. It's one of many plot devices that's more like a soap opera than a serious novel.

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We're also informed, early on in the story, that Pete drinks too much. Later, he suffers a seizure as result of alcohol withdrawal and learns that his liver is double the normal size. It's not until then that we learn that he's going through a fifth of whiskey every couple days, and sometimes daily. It's a shocking revelation, but it comes toward the end; placed earlier, it would have given the story much more dramatic heft.

High and Inside reads like the first draft of what could be a grittier and more compelling tale. Rowland comes close but then shies away; like when Pete finally meets with his ex-girlfriend, who was paralyzed in a drunken accident, she's described as healthy and happy looking, without any mention of whether she's in a wheelchair or not.

References to sex can be cringe-worthy; at one point, Pete refers to his difficulty getting an erection as his "limp noodle." It feels comical and out of place in a heavy situation.

But chiefly, High and Inside's perspective does it a disservice. There's nothing wrong with establishing a main character who's not overtly likable, but I'm not sure Rowland meant to do so. The first-person set-up makes it difficult for us to see the multiple facets that might make an unpleasant character worth getting invested in.

Rowland used first person in his debut, In Open Spaces, narrating from the perspective of a 14-year-old in the 1940s. The kid's wise-beyond-his-years viewpoint worked well to enrich the story; but the device doesn't function as well in High and Inside, where Pete doesn't seem very self-aware. Since Pete doesn't describe himself much beyond explaining that he's tall, it leaves us guessing, among other things, why young, beautiful women keep throwing themselves at him when he comes across as an inept alcoholic.

It's not necessary to be a sports fan to read High and Inside, but the baseball passages are some of the strongest, most vivid parts of the story, and I wonder if someone who's passionate about the Red Sox or baseball in general might be more likely to find Pete sympathetic. Besides being an alcoholic who's had bad luck, Pete doesn't have all that much personality. He comes across as a kind of male version of a Mary Suea trope common to teen lit, where the protagonist is an idealized character who readers can easily insert themselves into. (Think Bella from Twilight.)

Mary Sues are common for a reason, and that's because they can be entertaining to live vicariously through. High and Inside might make for a bit of light beach reading for a baseball fan or anyone who enjoys tales of antiheroes and redemption; I just wouldn't recommend that anyone overthink it.

Russell Rowland reads from High and Inside at Fact and Fiction, 220 N. Higgins Ave., Wed., Sept. 11, at 7 PM. Free.

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