Do we determine our lives or are they like a game of pinball in which “we use the flippers to buy time, but ultimately it ends up in the same hole”? This is one of the driving questions of Pinball, Patrick Shields’s debut novel, a coming-of-age story that also addresses classism, racism, and toxic masculinity.
Set in Philadelphia in 1991, Pinball follows Patrick Shields, one of the few white students at Bouchard Academy, a fictional North Philadelphia boarding school for local low-income youth where the majority of the student population is Black. Two weeks before graduation, the school and city are roiling from a racist incident in which police and campus security chase a Black student named Cyrus Michaelson, resulting in a grave injury. Isaiah Crawley is leading fellow Black students in protest against the school’s structural racism and wants to honor Cyrus at their graduation ceremony. School authorities are pressuring Patrick, as valedictorian, to toe the line when the ceremony is broadcast on live television with the mayor in attendance.
But will Patrick graduate at all? As he eyes a ticket out of Philadelphia thanks to a full scholarship to Vassar and a $1,000 school award, he’s having his own trouble with the police.
Pinball is a work of self-described “autofiction,” inspired by Shields’s time as a student at North Philadelphia boarding school Girard College. Like his protagonist, the author’s father was convicted of bank robbery and served time at a federal penitentiary near the school, which in the novel is called Pennsylvania State Penitentiary. He paints a gritty, vivid, and expansive portrait of Philadelphia across regions and class lines, taking us from underground bars to Villanova mansions. The period itself is also a character, with pop culture references citing Jesus Jones, Boyz II Men, and the television show Life Goes On.
The core questions
Patrick is an entertaining and enervating protagonist. A clever, witty, and insightful observer, Patrick is also deeply disdainful of almost everyone. Believing himself to be the smartest in any room, he does not apply his insight to himself. He deplores his racist white neighbors, who frequently use a racist slur (not spelled by the author), but as his upper-middle-class girlfriend Bronwen correctly points out, “I bet you hear it a lot and say nothing at all.”
Patrick’s first-person narration is also rife with homophobia, ableism, and misogyny, which can be straining, if not triggering, to read. Because we see the world through his lens, other characters, notably women, are less defined than he is. The relationship and history of Patrick and Isaiah, former best friends turned nemeses, also deserved more attention and a clearer resolution.
If Patrick Shields the character is ignorant of his myopia, at least Shields the author is not. Rather than determinism, Pinball’s core question becomes not will Patrick get out of Philadelphia and avoid the life of poverty and crime that has trapped his family, but will he recognize the humanity in others and fight for something other than his own survival? Shields is a skilled writer who kept me invested in Patrick’s decision.
Image description: The cover of the book Pinball. On a light background, a dark human figure is falling onto his back. Above the figure is the title of the book, Pinball, with each letter a different color (purple, green, orange, yellow, green, red, and pink respectively). Above the title in dark gray is the author’s name, Patrick Shields.
What, When, Where
Pinball. By Patrick Shields. Independently published December 4, 2020. 283 pages, paperback; $9.99 ($6.99 on Kindle). Find it at www.pinballnovel.com.