Smoke by Michael Chabon, 1990
The magic trick:
Using the character of Beryl Zmuda as the physical manifestation of Magee’s decline and failure
“Smoke” features a central character, Magee, who is watching his baseball career age from slightly disappointing into utter failure. How then for the author to show that downfall in the span of a short story? Easy. Insert Beryl Zmuda, resident sportswriter.
Chabon is able to show an immensity of before-and-after compare/contrast very quickly through her character. Cheryl represents what is arguably the high point of Magee’s career: a hype piece in the paper way back when he was a can’t-miss prospect. Now, Cheryl is showing signs of age. She mocks him. She’s a minor-league-baseball beat reporter in Erie, Pa. With all due respect to Ms. Zmuda, it’s telling when she represents your career peak. One side character, not all that much word space: one big, memorable, sad career arc representation. And that’s quite a trick on Chabon’s part.
He turned, startled at hearing his own thought echoed aloud. It was Beryl Zmuda, in a fur coat, and she was only kidding, in her gravelly way. Beryl was a sports columnist for the Erie morning paper, and she had known Magee ever since Magee had come up in that city, with the Cardinals organization. A laudatory article by Beryl, written after Magee’s first professional shutout, had gotten things rolling for him eleven years before. In that game Magee had struck out nine batters in a row and made the last out himself by bare-handing a line drive. No one was more disappointed by what had become of Magee’s career than Beryl Zmuda.