It is the 1960s and Leonard is a young Mennonite man coming of age in the fictional Manitoba town of Shannon Creek. Leonard is the main character in many of the short stories in Roger Groening’s new book Knuckleball. We follow Leonard on a trip to Winnipeg where he must face the consequences of speed smoking an entire pack of Du Maurier cigarettes. We get to listen in as Leonard seeks dating advice from a local restaurateur whose wife left him for a Fuller Brush salesman. We suffer along with Leonard as he draws a blank trying to recite the extensive portions of Scripture he’s had to memorize in order to attend summer Bible Camp. We wait in anticipation to see if Leonard’s conversion at an evangelical tent meeting will positively impact his ability to pitch a perfect knuckleball and strike out bully Hermie Goertzen.
I attended the launch of Roger Groening’s Knuckleball at McNally Robinson near the beginning of December. The chapter Roger chose to share with the packed house that night was about an uncle who turns up at the Christmas family gathering in Shannon Creek with his gorgeous new girlfriend from Vegas. She’s forgotten to bring a salad, a major faux pas, but one Leonard can overlook as he stares at her long legs and imagines her touching his body.
I laughed out loud many times while reading Knuckleball. Who wouldn’t laugh in the midst of stories like the one about the Shannon Creek school janitor? He walks like Charlie Chaplin and learns to make meatloaf on his own after being struck by lightning twice and discovering his wife, a former gospel music star is a lesbian. Meanwhile his stash of Playboys has been confiscated by his boss, and he’s been forced into letting his sister-in-law take over his bedroom during a furlough from her life’s mission of saving India.
Knuckleball is a bit like an episode of the television show Corner Gas. Many of the things that happen seem wacky and improbable but those of us who grew up in rural Mennonite communities in the 1960s know Roger’s stories have a ring of truth to them and aren’t quite as wacky and improbable as some might think.