Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)
You have to wonder what gets into some writers’ heads when they decide to land on some remote time and place nobody currently is giving a scintilla of thought to and then go ahead and do everything it takes to bring that time and place magically to life. God knows why he chose to do it, but Robert Cochrane has pulled off just such a—I want to say “stunt,” but that’s too feeble a word for the weight and richness of this lovely novel.
There are lots of World War II novels, but how many World War II baseball novels are there, especially World War II baseball novels set in Japan whose main character is American? I am guessing none, so Cochrane gets additional points for originality.
Within seconds of picking up “Sayonara Sacrifice,” we’re transported back to Sistertown, Oregon in 1927, where hard-working, good-natured Horst “Heck” Riedl is the catcher and star hitter of the local college baseball team. The great New York Yankees roster of that era — Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, et al — is coming through for an exhibition game with the college players, and everybody in town hopes Heck will help avert abject humiliation. Aiming for a pro career, Heck just hopes to get noticed.
The game, narrated by Cochrane more excitingly than Red Barber ever dreamed of doing, is notable for (a) being well-played by all (Sisterton is squashed but has its good moments) and (b) the overt racism of the Yanks. Ty Cobb is the worst of them, calling the many Japanese-Americans in the stands “chinks” and mocking a Nisei cheerleader. There’s a wonderful moment, though, when a Japanese-American man named Hiro emerges from the bleachers to step in and pitch for Sistertown and actually gives Cobb what-for in a language he can appreciate.
The moments of racist mockery at the big game are ugly in themselves, and they also prefigure later events, like the internment of many of Sistertown’s Japanese-American families by the U.S. Government.
Racism depicted in the novel takes another form too. After events take Heck and Hiro (the pitcher who struck out Ty Cobb) to Kobe and a professional team owned by Hiro’s adoptive father, it’s Heck who is regularly insulted and even threatened by Japanese baseball fans who consider Western “gaijin” insufficiently “spiritual” people who have no business living and working in Japan. Caucasian Heck has to watch his back constantly.
The novel moves back and forth in time deftly, with the earliest events portraying the touching love story of Hiro’s birth parents. There’s a funny chance meeting on Market Street in San Francisco, and after Hiro’s dad is locked up on trumped-up charges a frightening but fortuitous jail break during the 1906 earthquake. Throughout the novel, Cochrane uses real historical events to alter his characters’ assorted trajectories, and it all just feels like real life unfolding.
It’s friends and family, including a feisty, high-humored Japanese wife, as well as the chance to play ball, that keep Heck in Japan throughout the 1930s and the rise of fascism there. It’s an agonizing time for rational people. To what extent do you go along with the anti-Western mob mentality and the political/cultural police and their snoops and informers, and to what extent can you resist and still stay out of prison? Some of the novel’s most heart-wrenching moments concern Hiro and his wife Mitzi’s son Susumu and their fear he is getting brainwashed in school by the militarists.
When war finally comes, it’s all about survival. After an anti-foreigner roundup, Heck the gaijin is released when Hiro comes up with a plan for making pro-fascist propaganda films using an American actor. This ploy continues to provide cover even after Heck and Hiro are recruited by the OSS to radio Japanese military plans to the allies.
If all that sounds suspenseful and fraught, it sure is. But there’s also a sweetness to the novel that comes from the humor and decency that these good people are somehow able to maintain even under bombardment and in fascist hell. Baseball has a lot to do with it. Heck and his people are the best kind of baseball lovers. He says at one point, “Baseball isn’t war. Baseball is peaceful.” It’s human conflict that’s civilized, enjoyable. Although Japan loved baseball, it chose another manner of conflict, and we also see in Cochrane’s novel the horrendous price it paid for that choice.
In Sayonara Sacrifice, you won’t get the World War II of James Jones or Norman Mailer.
You’ll get some of those same horrors, but the superb story-teller that came to mind for me while reading Heck Riedl’s bumptious and suspenseful saga was Preston Sturges. There’s plenty of hard reality here, but also humor and heart, and that’s quite a feat.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64) writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson. A former editorial writer for The Berkshire Eagle, he reviews mysteries for The Washington Post.