Bill Scheft’s The Ringer is best described as illegitimate child of Christopher Buckley and Elmore Leonard. With Buckley’s ear for witty, satiric dialogue and Leonard’s gift for quirky but believable characters, The Ringer is both funny and moving.
On the surface, the setup for Scheft’s story is somewhat absurd. Harvey “College Boy” Sussman is a professional softball ringer, whose only legitimate gigs are a once-a-year stint in the mailroom of Morgan Stanley and a weekly job as a professional audience for a radio host – both of which only serve to allow him to play on certain softball teams.
His uncle, Morton Martin Spell, is a former sports writer who is quickly slipping into senility. He’s rushed to Mount Sinai (which he thinks is a golf course) after he collapses while on a trip to receive an award in Los Angeles. Set in 1991, The Ringer basically tells the story of how caring for his uncle forces College Boy (who, despite his youthful moniker, is 35 years old) to grow up.
But to explain it in that way makes it sound trite and simplistic, and it’s not. Scheft throws a variety of memorable supporting characters into the mix, including Sheila, a housekeeper who uses her clients’ homes for her part-time gig as a prostitute and The Dirt King, a semi-mobster who controls all of the topsoil in Central Park.
The first half of the novel is darkly funny, with Mort trying valiantly to hang onto sanity and College Boy doggedly attempting to keep his body from falling apart. But about halfway through, the novel turns more serious, as Mort’s condition worsens and a visit from The Dirt King’s henchmen forces College Boy out of the ringer business.
Scheft deals with such heavy topics as the pain of aging, the occasional incompetence of the medical profession and how certain decisions can change a person’s life in an instant. However, he’s never preachy, and never loses his sense of humor. Even when he’s being serious, he’s still funny He’s one of the rare authors who captures the way that people talk, from the aged Mort – who, even in senility, frequently greets visitors with “You’re looking awfully well today” – to College Boy’s fellow ringer Julio “Papa J” Rentas, who calls everyone “Freddy.”
The Ringer is Scheft’s first novel after many years as a monologist for David Letterman’s television show. On the basis of The Ringer, I wish he’d started writing novels sooner. The book gives the impression of great things to come from Scheft, in addition to the great thing he’s already delivered.