Impossible dreams commingle improbably with impenetrable smoke in Clinton, Iowa, population around 25,000. A map fleck located 360 miles from Minneapolis, Clinton is also the hometown of the LumberKings, a barrel bottom minor-league baseball team.
Clinton, whose mostly motley ballplayers are owned by the Seattle Mariners, is also the site of an Archer Daniels Midland corn processing plant that belches exhaust so acrid that the county ranks 98th out of 99 of Iowa's municipalities in "environment."
When the dreams and smoke intersect, the results can be literally gut-wrenching, as Lucas Mann shows early in "Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere," his transcendent look at a lowdown town and its even lower down baseball team.
One of the stars of the book that chronicles the LumberKings' 2010 season is Steve Baron, 19. New in town, Baron walked outside on opening day, Mann details, "hit the air, saw the factory, smelled the smoke, and vomited all over the sidewalk."
Too much information? Not for Mann, writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa, who combines hyper-detailed journalism with a lyrical flow of prose into a book debut that transcends all of the hackneyed clichés of sports writing.
Mann imbues his chronicle with the tale of a town as removed from major-league prosperity as the players whose uniforms bear the burg's name. Meantime, his beloved late brother hovers over Mann like Marley's ghost, while memories of going to Yankee Stadium with his father rival anything Roger Angell has written on the same topic.
Mann's narrative is a tapestry of subplots composed of the kind of unsparing detail that manages somehow to be simultaneously inspiring, despairing and hopeful. Chronicling both life's harshest realities and the stuff dreams are made of, Mann has created some kind of classic out of the smoke and mirrors of a moribund town and the visions of young men who don't know it's time to wake up.
In charting the hopes and fears of never-will-be major leaguers, citizens of a largely desiccated town, and his own complicated soul, Mann has made the fool's gold his entire cast seems to be chasing seem real.
Take Venezuelan Erasmo Ramirez, 20, a lonely, shy pitcher almost surely too small for the major leagues. Ramirez only comes alive when describing the feeling of standing on the mound.
"His favorite part of pitching is the eyes on him," describes Mann. "[H]e told me hours before the game 'everybody looks at me. All these people' — he gestured his pitching hand toward the bleachers that were empty — 'and they see me.' "
Neal Karlen's most recent book is "Augie's Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip." He lives in Minneapolis.