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High and Inside
By Russell Rowland
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
(Originally written for the Billings Gazette, and reprinted here with their kind permission.)
It's become almost a cliche by now, the rich and famous who build upper-class rural estates in Montana so to "get away from it all," unfortunately instead bringing it all with them to the consternation of locals; so it would make sense that writers would find it interesting to fashion novels out of such a dramatic conceit, like Billings author Russell Rowland has done in his latest, High and Inside, his third book after multiple best-of-the -year picks In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years. And Rowland adds to the drama by making this a redemption story too, not just a famous person moving to Montana but an infamous person fleeing there -- disgraced major-league pitcher and raging alcoholic Pete Hurley, that is, whose drunken errant pitch that ended the career of a saintly Dominican up-and-comer has inspired a national movement towards more safety in baseball, and who on top of everything else also accidentally paralyzed his girlfriend after they both took an unluckily serious tumble while in a blackout fugue. Hurley has come to Bozeman not necessarily for its charms, but merely to get as far away from everyone else as he can, although he's convinced himself that he's come so to accomplish the pipe dream of building an entire house by himself; but that's what gives us one of the first clues as to how damaged he actually is, in that he has an almost comical lack of knowledge about tools or construction, just one of the many elements (including haranguing in-laws, a sexy but tough neighbor, and a three-legged dog) that keeps our anti-hero on his wobbly toes throughout the course of this tragicomedic novel.
And to be sure, we're supposed to have an ambivalent attitude towards our hard-to-love protagonist; a runaway addict still in deep denial, Hurley has the habit of making things even harder on himself by picking drunken fights with the people who could've helped him the most (for example, the city employee in charge of approving and overseeing construction projects, standing in for every local who's ever gotten angry at an encroaching outsider), as well as scaring his young nephews on a regular basis and creeping out females in a whole variety of different ways. And that's of course a big part of this novel's entire point, to show our hero at his worst so that we can follow along as he gets better, a classic bottoming-out story but with a lot more than usual at stake. Rowland handles such a story with a lot of aplomb and maturity, turning in a novel by turns funny and serious that takes its time getting to its point.
But unfortunately, High and Inside has its problems too, in a few cases pretty big ones that pull the book's overall enjoyment level down a couple of notches. Chief among them, for example, is Rowland's habit to trust neither himself nor his audience and turn in many moments too broadly; after all, this is a man who not only caused one of the most horrific injuries in the history of baseball because of his drinking problem (a 100-MPH pitch straight into a man's eye socket), but then just a few months later permanently paralyzed his girlfriend, a bit of an overkill when all is said and done, and there are multiple other examples here of Rowland sometimes going too big, or sometimes too sentimental, or sometimes too melodramatic. Plus, he's chosen some details for his characters and settings that can sometimes approach hackneyed from overuse; and like a lot of authors of more slowly paced stories, Rowland has a habit of sometimes including entire scenes that only exist to spell out little inconsequential niceties ("And then they had dinner, and then they engaged in small talk, and then everyone went home") that ultimately have nothing to do with either the plot or the characters' growth.
All in all, though, High and Inside was an enjoyable read, as long as you keep your expectations reasonable going into it, a solid character study that shows off the Montana culture and landscape in an engaging way. It comes somewhat recommended to a general audience, and more to those who specifically enjoy good stories about addiction and recovery.
Out of 10: 8.1