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Author Bill Littlefield's new novel asks: What is 'Mercy?' And who deserves it?

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The cover of "Mercy" by Bill Littlefield. (Courtesy)
The cover of "Mercy" by Bill Littlefield. (Courtesy)

For 25 years Bill Littlefield's infectious laugh and thoughtful conversation made NPR's Only a Game much more than a national sports show. On the show, he'd ruminate on social issues, injustices, and obscure athletic accomplishments and feats that otherwise went unnoticed — and of course the great moments in sports as well.

His thoughts and commentaries made their way onto Morning Edition and into various national newspapers. And now, in his new novel "Mercy," the narrator shares Littlefield's introspection.

In the novel, he muses about no less than the meaning of life in a small town that appears quiet, but where inner lives are thunderous. All the while, the novel examines concepts like empathy, and, as the title of the book implies, mercy.

Littlefield joins host Robin Young to talk about his new book.

Bill Littlefield retires this week after 25 years as the host of Only A Game. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)
Bill Littlefield at WBUR back in 2018. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Book excerpt: 'Mercy'

By Bill Littlefield

BOY IN THE YARD

“What did you say?”
“What I could,” I said.
Henry put down his coffee and looked at me.
“How old is he?”
“Eleven,” I said.
“And how did he ask?”
“I don’t remember exactly,” I said. “It was something like, ‘What
happens when you die?’ or maybe, “What happens after you’re
dead?’ I’m not sure.”
“Yikes,” Henry said. Then, “Jack, maybe we should have some
more coffee.”
“I told him some people believe that after you die you’re judged,
and that judgment determines where your spirit or soul will spend
eternity.”
“He’s eleven,” Henry said.
“I had to say something,” I said. “Or I thought I did. I told him
some people say you go to heaven, which they think is a place where
you see the people you loved while you were alive.”
“He didn’t ask about the other people?”
“Of course, he did. I told him the other people got punished for
whatever they’d done wrong during their lives. Maybe they got to
heaven later.”
“How did he take that?”

“He said, ‘Everything you’ve done wrong?’ So, I told him it was
maybe only the really important things.”
“That can’t have helped much at eleven. Taking an extra cookie,
right?”
“Right,” I said. “Stupid.”
Henry shrugged. He is a friend.
“I also told him some people don’t believe you go anywhere after
you die. He thought about that for a minute, and then asked if they
thought you just kind of went to sleep.”
“Okay,” Henry said.
“I told him I didn’t think it was like that, and then I said, ‘You
know, there was a time before you were born. There was a time
before your mother and I were born. Maybe it’s like that after you
die. Like the time before you were born. It’s not like you’re asleep.
It’s just like you’re not. Except that people remember you. Some
people.”
“You covered a lot of ground,” Henry said. “I’ll give you that.”
Then he looked at his watch.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “Ann’s taking me to meet her parents.”
But he didn’t get up, and after a moment, he shook his head and
asked, “How’d he take it? About the people remembering you after
you die?”
“He said, ‘Like Babe Ruth?’ And I said, ‘Sure. Or Walter Johnson.’”
“You remember Walter Johnson,” Henry said.
“I was thinking about a story I’d read somewhere,” I said.
“Walter Johnson sounds like he was a good guy.”
“Ah,” Henry said. He still didn’t get up. He is a friend.
“I suppose I could have said, ‘When you die, you go to heaven.’”
“No doubt,” Henry said.
“No judgment,” I said.
“You think that was maybe what confused him? The part about
the judgment?”

“He didn’t say he was confused,” I said. “He’s watched a lot of
baseball, you know? Enough to know that sometimes the better
team loses.”
“Where is he now?”
I pointed out the window. The boy was in the middle of the long,
narrow backyard with a baseball and a bat. He was tossing the ball
into the air and hitting it, while simultaneously narrating a game
full of players only he could see. He was wearing his jersey, a St.
Louis Cardinals knock-off, with the red bird perched on the yellow
bat. The game wouldn’t start for hours. I would drive him to the
park and watch from the four-row wooden bleachers. On the way
home, we’d talk about how he and his teammates had done, who’d
played well, whether the umpire, a high school kid, had been any
good.
Henry watched the boy for a while, and then said, “What’s all the
junk under the tree?”
“Tree house in progress,” I said.
“Not much progress,” Henry said. “But, hey, look at him out
there, swinging the bat, announcing home runs. He looks happy.”
“I hope so,” I said.
Henry got up and nodded. “Looks like it,” he said. “And that
business about dead being like before you were born, that’s not bad.
I’m gonna try to remember that, just in case.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good luck with Ann’s parents. Take care of
yourself.”
“You, too,” he said.
When I closed the door behind Henry, the boy heard the noise
and looked up from his game. He waved. He was smiling.

Excerpted from 'Mercy' by Bill Littlefield, published by Black Rose Writing July 27 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Bill Littlefield. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on August 3, 2022.

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