The New Rules of the Game

I don’t read much fiction, so I was disinclined to read the manuscript of a new novel that arrived in the mail a few months ago. I’d never heard of the author. But the story was set in my home town, Ypsilanti, Michigan, and I gave it a try, expecting to be bored after a chapter or two.

I found myself still reading it in the wee hours. It was one of the most emotionally grueling stories I’d ever read. But as soon as I woke up in the morning I had to finish it. The author asked for my endorsement; after reading it, I wanted to give copies to all my friends. It was that powerful.

The book, Blind Baseball: A Father’s War, has now been published by AuthorHouse in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s not about baseball; it’s about a divorce, and much more. The title is an odd but apt metaphor explained late in the book. The author, Allen Green, writes with such passion it’s tempting to believe the tale is autobiographical, but it isn’t.

The story’s hero, Barry Ballinger, has, to say the least, a troubled marriage. His wife, Sal, serves him with divorce papers, empties their bank account, and spitefully runs up huge debts in his name. She also means to take custody of their six children. And that’s just the beginning of her campaign to ruin, humiliate, and utterly destroy him.

Barry goes to a lawyer, who tells him that under Michigan’s no-fault divorce law his chances of getting custody of the children are almost nil. Originally intended to level the playing field and make the dissolution of marriage as painless as possible, the law actually has the opposite effect: It gives women like Sal, who know how to play the angles, huge legal advantages. It also serves the interests of predatory men, like the sponging lovers Sal brings into the home once Barry has been expelled. The horror is that Barry is punished for trying to be a responsible father.

Sal is none too bright, but she has a shrewd instinct for power. With the aid of her lawyer – a "barracuda at law," in Barry’s phrase – she turns all the resources of the state against Barry. Through her machinations and false accusations, he loses his children, his property, his livelihood, his reputation, and very nearly his sanity. At one point he actually finds himself committed to a mental institution. He seems to be baffled at every turn. For a while his situation seems hopeless.

Blind Baseball is to domestic law what Nineteen Eighty-Four is to politics. It vividly shows how bureaucratic "social services" can be perverted into tools of raw power over the unsuspecting individual. At first Barry navely assumes the basic fairness of the system; he is quickly disabused by the successive hammer-blows of Sal’s cunning malice.

What makes this more than a mere divorce novel is Green’s grasp of the systematic nature of the forces Barry faces. Slowly he comes to realize that he’s up against something more than a flaw in the system: This is just how the system is designed to work.

But unlike Orwell’s hapless hero, Winston Smith, Barry is no passive victim. As he comprehends that the real enemy is much bigger than Sal, and as Sal herself overplays her hand, he manages to achieve a limited victory – though only after the turmoil has caused him and his kids enormous stress and pain.

Many fathers can attest that Barry’s plight is neither unique nor exaggerated. The laws, institutions, and state agents that nearly crush him are real, and this is how they operate in countless cases every day. Some fathers, despairing of justice under the law, kidnap their own children and disappear.

The book isn’t entirely bleak. Barry receives encouragement and wisdom from his old mentor, Art Smith, who explains that the state is dedicated to destroying families. The root of Barry’s crisis is the materialist philosophy that shapes the laws, creating an unnatural balance of power. Once he understands this, Barry is able to pull himself together and salvage his and his children’s lives. And Sal’s malignity finally carries its own punishment.

Blind Baseball is in the end a comment not only on marriage and divorce, but on the irrationality of modern law itself. Barry’s bitter wit adds both wry amusement and sharp insight to a wrenching drama of the soul against the state.

April 21, 2005

Joseph Sobran is an author, syndicated columnist, and editor of a monthly newsletter, Sobran’s.