Masculinity, Competition and the Great American Past Time

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Reading Blockade Billy made me feel like an outsider, like I was missing something intrinsic to fully participating in the American experience. I don’t care about baseball. I think it makes for an interesting narrative, I guess, especially considering my affection for Steve Kluger’s The Last Days of Summer, about the effect a major league baseball player has on a young, fatherless child in the 1940s. But that book isn’t about baseball the way that Blockade Billy is; it’s a story about relationships and war and what it means to be an adult: a father, a friend, a man. Blockade Billy is really about jealousy, masculinity, and, of course, baseball, the Great American Past Time.

Baseball’s history is intrinsically American: created around the 1800s in America by the likely fusion of two English sports, cricket and rounders, it as a sport is demonstrative of the status of this nation, that is, not wholly its own, the descendent of something that came before. Baseball was particularly popular from the 1920s-1960s, when America was experiencing tumult after tumult: the success of women’s suffrage, the aftermath of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights movements, from black civil rights to the second wave feminist movement. Perhaps baseball served as a counter to this perceived instability, its popularity then suggesting heterosexual white, American masculinity to counter the encroaching Other.

In fact, within the text of Blockade Billy, Billy/Gene is presented as this Other: “There was something strange about him, something off, something that made folks nervous… but that something made people take to him, too. Kinda sweet” (15). As it is revealed in the final act of the novel, Blockade Billy is revealed to be dead, that Eugene Katsanis has not only taken his spot on the team but killed him and his parents — this obviously explains for his strangeness. It’s important to note that Gene may be coded as “foreign” – he’s white, this is evident in the text, but could very well be from South Eastern Europe with a Greek-sounding surname, which positions him somewhat in the status of Other. Additionally, it’s important to consider Gene’s character in terms of his masculinity.

Gene subverts the tradition of masculine violence, that is, instead of using his body for violence intended to help – for example, to help a woman, to defend someone’s honor, etc. – his violence is expressed in his murder of the Blakely family. But interestingly enough, and contending with that notion, Gene kills out of jealousy/competition. Cisgender heterosexual men (this is the dominant narrative of America/the American man) are pitted against one another and put into competition with each other. King critiques this narrative of masculinity, demonstrating through Gene’s murders of the Blakely family that the competitive nature of contemporary masculinity is damaging, that this narrative destroys and ruins.

If baseball is a metaphor for America and American masculinity, it’s evident in this text. While paying homage to baseball culture and the affection some men of King’s age seem to have for the sport, King uses this standpoint to critique the nature of masculinity, competition, and what it really means to be American. If America = masculinity, then America = violent; this correlation is drawn through the interactions between the Blakely family and Gene, the abuse or torment that drove him to murder rooted in masculinity and masculine competition. Through this representation, King critiques the culture that creates American masculinity and the competition that surrounds it.

King, Stephen. Blockade Billy. New York: Scribner, 2010.

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