Knuckleball is a noir novella by Tom Pitts set in San Francisco during a busy baseball weekend when a well-liked police officer is gunned down (available March 24, 2015).
With its ever-sprouting skyscrapers, Google buses, and $12 juices, contemporary San Francisco is an unlikely setting for Noir. Not that San Francisco can’t work as the backdrop for other types of crime stories. After all, felonies are committed by all socioeconomic classes (I’m looking at you, Robert Durst). But as a location for the doomed, dark stories spun in traditional Noir, modern-day San Francisco, where the sky (and rent) is literally the limit, is an incongruous choice, to say the least.
Yet somehow, Tom Pitts continues to successfully mine San Francisco for exactly these types of sordid tragedies. In his first full-length novel, Hustle, Pitts wrote about the neglected corners of the skid row Tenderloin neighborhood like only an insider could. In place of hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and software engineers were male street hustlers, drug addicts, and blackmailers. For Knuckleball, a shotgun blast of a novella from short fiction specialist One Eye Press, Pitts takes us into San Francisco’s Mission district. Not surprisingly, this is not the Mission of trendy restaurants and expensive boutiques, but the original, working class Mission, the barrio, populated with families, corner tiendas, and of course, hustlers of all stripes.
Knuckleball takes place over the course of a weekend series between the San Francisco Giants and their archrivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. While the rest of the city, chock-full of transplants, casually roots on the hometown team, the fervor for the Giants in the homegrown Mission remains intense. Patrolman Hugh Patterson is no different. A familiar face in the neighborhood, Patterson takes the time to walk the beat while his fellow cops remain isolated in their cars. While he believes this technique makes for better policing, he also thinks that police should be a part of the community. It’s what drew him in the first place. For Hugh, police work was, and still is, a noble profession.
So when Patterson is gunned down in broad daylight, the neighborhood and the city are thrown into a state of disbelief. None moreso than his partner, Vince Alvarez, who, when the deadly shots were fired, had wandered off in a pique of jealousy to phone his wife. Alvarez spends the rest of the book feeling both guilty about leaving his partner vulnerable and resentful that the department (and his wife) subtly blame him for his Hugh’s death.
While Patterson’s murder is a horror for Alvarez, it becomes an opportunity for Oscar Flores. Oscar, A fourteen-year-old boy and diehard Giants fan, spends most of his days locked away in his bedroom watching the Giants, trying to avoid the physical abuse of his deranged older brother, Ramon. Patterson’s murder occurs right outside Oscar’s window during Game 1 of the series. After the reward for information leading to the arrest of Patterson’s murderer is raised to $35,000, Oscar decides to become a police witness, upending the lives of everyone surrounding the investigation.
Pitts is at his best bringing the psychology of his characters to life with brief descriptions, often of their daily activities. Like here, where Oscar tries to help his mother with chores:
Oscar was relieved to hear his mother’s voice. He hurried to the top of the stairs and rushed down to grab a bag from his mother. He felt safe now that she was home. He set his bag on the counter and began to unpack it.
“No, no, no, Oscar, let me do it. You don’t know where stuff goes.”
He knew where stuff goes. He sat down at the kitchen table and watched her move from cupboard to cupboard. She looked exhausted. She made a little groan every time she put something away. It was nearly ten o’clock and she was just getting home. Oscar looked at his mother and for the first time noticed the jowly flesh gathered at the bottom of her cheeks. He noticed, too, the crow’s feet reaching across her temples. His mother seemed to be aging right in front of him. Wilting.
Pitts is equally adept at writing about disturbing subject matter in a way that never flinches, yet is never salacious. His prose remains steadily observant, as comfortable describing a tender moment between mother and son as a messy crime scene:
It only took one bullet to put down Officer Hugh Patterson. It was unnecessary to pump an extra four into his head. The blood flow from a wound like that—when the head is opened up while the heart is still beating—is enormous. It was flowing so fast that the puddle of blood had a ripple. It snaked down toward the gutter, slick and almost black.
Knuckleball says what it wants to say and not a word more. There is enough of a skeleton here to have held an entire novel, and the reader can’t help but wonder how a longer work might have read. Adding a little more flesh to the bone might have helped the reader to better understand a few characters, particularly one that plays a crucial role in the novella’s conclusion. But this is a gluttonous objection. For those readers jonesing for the next offering from Pitts, Knuckleball will more than satisfy their craving.
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