It’s an odd thing when a friend asks you to review his book.
I’ve reviewed countless books on this website over the years but I can’t say I’ve ever known any of the authors personally. Besides, what if this friend wrote a book and it was unreadable. It’d be like telling your mom that you weren’t fond of her Thanksgiving casserole but worse because, although it may have tasted like it, the casserole didn’t take years to create.
Fortunately, I am not in that predicament as my friend, Michael Lortz (Twitter handle @JordiScrubbings), has graciously asked me to review his new book entitled Curveball at the Crossroads and I liked it. Quite a bit actually. Problem solved; casserole crisis averted.
It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a work of solid fiction. Most of my hours are spent reading and reviewing works that aren’t wholly derived from the author’s imagination. But Mr. Lortz has released his first novel, with hopefully many more to come, and it is already finding A+ reviews… for good reason.
Now it’s my turn, or better yet his turn to read my words about his own. Here’s hoping he’s pleasantly surprised and I promise my readers, there is no bias in this review.
Curveball at the Crossroads is a tale of a young man named JaMark Reliford who hails from Rosedale, Mississippi. He’s a baseball phenom if you will, an early high school pitching prodigy, a small-town boy with a big city future, until one fateful afternoon when he blows out his arm. Career over.
Once his future turns foul, Reliford resorts to a lifestyle of “alcohol, arrogance and aggravated assault,” struggling in subsequent years, wondering to himself what could have been had he only stayed healthy.
It is at this point when he encounters “a tall, slender, well-dressed man in a black suit, tie, and matching top hat” with whom he strikes a deal. This gentleman he meets, at both a literal and proverbial crossroads, offers our protagonist a new lease on life, a deal, one you’ve undoubtedly heard before.
“I want a guarantee. A guarantee that you will always put me first. If you put me first, your arm will never hurt again. However, if you put anyone else first, everything I give you will disappear.”
Sell his soul to the man in black and his arm would return to gold, never wavering, never aching. He would be granted the opportunity to once again play the game he loved. As you might expect, on that dark night, Reliford makes the deal. And this is where our journey begins, carefully crafted and entertainingly described by our author Michael Lortz.
Reliford’s newfound success and now pain-free arm, no matter how much or how hard he throws, propels him through the minors and into the major leagues with unprecedented success. Lortz invents all new and enjoyable ways for players to break baseball records, which takes some imagination considering the game’s been around for well over a century.
More importantly, Lortz brings his key characters to life, the humble, conflicted Reliford, the conniving and crafty devil and a slew of others that provide meaning and substance. His chapters are short (66 of them), which works perfectly for those of us with ADHD. They end vividly in well-crafted cliffhangers that make Crossroads difficult to put down because you want to see what happens next, which should be the point of any well-written book.
In real life, we hear countless athletes give grace to God but Lortz flips the script on traditional gratitude by having the devil insist upon receiving his own thanks. “How many athletes have you heard actually thank the Devil. It doesn’t happen. If there was an athlete interview rulebook, it would be in there. Never thank a deity but God or Jesus.” As our protagonist becomes more and more famous, Reliford must continue to thank the man who got him there and when he doesn’t’ there’s hell to pay. It’s, dare I say, a devilish twist on the post-game interview.
Reliford ultimately becomes conflicted with the choices he’s made and the fame he’s cheated to achieve. “He felt like a fraud telling children not to take shortcuts when he, in fact, did give up and accepted supernatural assistance to return to his chosen career path.”
Is Curveball at the Crossroads a metaphor for modern-day ball players taking steroids, short cuts, selling one’s soul for quick fame for quick gain? Are these analogies subtle, blatant or entirely inconsequential? Is the short burst of fame worth one’s conscience? Is it better to have loved and lost or never to have pitched at all?
Without too many spoilers, we find out young JaMark is not the only player to have made a deal with the devil. What happens later and how our hero makes amends (or does he?) is up to you to find out when you pick up a copy of Crossroads. If you ask nicely, our author may even send you an autographed copy. You won’t even have to sell your soul in return.
A self-professed audiophile, Lortz teases that the book is loaded with lyrical content from songs you’ve heard and some songs you haven’t, some references obvious, others far more subtle. He’s never afraid to take a few abstract and comedic stabs with mention of gnu racing, German skee-ballers and a Latin night promotion gone horribly wrong.
Perhaps I was reading a little too much into Lortz’s work, it’s what I do, but to me, this was more than just a story about a young man who makes a deal with the devil. What we have is a book about a man coming to terms with the decisions he has made in his life. “A man put himself in this mess, a man gotta get himself out.”
It is a book about retribution and second chances as well as a love story. In his time of need, JaMark turns to his girlfriend Betsy as his conscience, his moral compass, reminding us that behind every good man, there is an even better woman. Ultimately, however, it is JaMark who must face his demons.
Congratulations, Michael, on a work well done. For those of you interested in picking up a copy, you can follow Michael on Twitter or purchase on here.