The Ringer by Jenny Shank

On a mid-March afternoon in Denver, Ed O’Fallon and a DPD SWAT Team enter a run-down building on a no-knock warrant.  He comes upon a sleepy Mexican man who doesn’t respond to his commands.  A gun is drawn (or not?) and Ed fires.  The man is killed.  Ed later finds out that the no-knock warrant had the wrong address and the man had a name, Salvador Santillano.

The Ringer by Jenny Shank chronicles the repercussions in Denver’s Latino and law enforcement communities.  While the engine that propels the narrative forward revolves around Santillano’s death, Shank begins the novel with Ed and the Pink Unicorns.  Ed’s hot temper caused his ouster from coaching his sons’ baseball league.  Instead, he coaches the Purple Unicorns, the tee-ball team of his young daughter Molly.  The girls could pick the name of their teams, hence the sugary cuteness of the names.  “We need to work hard today, Unicorns, because our first game is in two weeks.  …  It’s against the Southeast Denver Baby Kittens.”  Following the team practice, we are thrust into the world of the SWAT team, where life-and-death decisions and following orders become serious matters.

The novel follows the lives of Ed O’Fallon and Patricia Maestas de Santillano in alternating chapters.  While coming from separate worlds, their situations mirror each other.  Both have young children, both must deal with the consequences of Salvador’s death, and both are nominally Catholic.  During Salvador’s funeral service, Patricia can’t get beyond the empty spectacle, reeking of incense and stilted choreography.  Similarly, Ed goes to his church to confess his sin.  During his confession, the priest acts like a distracted middle manager, casually dismissing Ed’s troubles with a mixture of contempt, annoyance, and Thomistic hair-splitting.  Since Ed acted in self-defense, the death of Salvador by his hand is not considered a sin.  This infuriates Ed, since his childhood involved penitent prayer when he had “lustful thoughts.”  It is one of the most damning portrayals of clergy outside of a Gothic novel.

The one hardest hit by the tragedy is Patricia’s son Ray, a pitcher of extraordinary talent who is recruited into the Pirates, a team in a more competitive league.  The stakes are high, since Salvador’s death has pushed Ray into the orbit of local Latino banger named Miguel.  Baseball provides an arena that offer’s Ray safety and distraction.  Since Patricia is now a single parent, watching over Ray has become that much harder.

The novel then broadens its scope beyond the domestic and into the realm of the public and the political.  Patricia’s mother Lupe arrives from Arizona to aid her daughter.  Lupe was a Latina activist in the Sixties, ready to fill Patricia’s addled head with stories of protest marches and boycotts.  An advocacy group is quickly organized, seeking to give Patricia the justice she deserves.  Like any mass movement, it develops its own momentum and adopts a wide mandate.  Ed and his police comrades do not want more public resentment and backlash.

Shank deftly navigates the dangerous currents of contemporary community politics.  On the one hand, the community wants justice to be served.  As the saying goes, “Who will watch the watchmen?”  No law enforcement body, regardless of its track record, should be above public scrutiny.  On the other hand, Ed tears himself apart.  He wants to apologize for his mistake, yet unemployment would be personally and financially devastating.

In the end, the paths of Patricia, Ray, and Ed collide.  It is a credit to Shank’s talent as a novelist that this collision does not appear contrived.  The novel excels in its depiction of everyday people dealing with extraordinary events.  Unlike thrillers and police procedurals, there are no good guys and no bad guys.  With police clannishness and activist passions, it is convenient to paint the opponent as the bad guys.  That’s not to say one shouldn’t make judgments about fatal accidents.  Shank lets the reader make up his or her mind regarding Ed’s culpability.

The Ringer is many novels in one.  It is a great Baseball Novel, Police Novel, and Community Novel.  Her Denver, with all its rivalries, passions, and physical beauty, is reminiscent of Balzac’s Paris.  She can switch from the macro to the micro with precision and grace.  This is a big novel filled with tiny literary flourishes.  These flourishes come together with her compelling believable characters, characters one would meet at the supermarket or at some random school or community event.  With passions running high across the globe, it is refreshing to read a novel that shines a light on contemporary problems, yet examines these same problems with ordinary people.


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