Author Bill Littlefield’s new novel asks: what is “Mercy?” And who deserves it?

Since 25 years Bill LittlefieldNPR’s infectious laughter and thoughtful conversation made NPR Only a game much more than a national sports broadcast. On the show, he ruminated on social issues, injustices, and obscure athletic accomplishments and feats that otherwise went unnoticed — and of course the sport’s great moments too.

His thoughts and comments made their way onto morning edition and in various national newspapers. And now, in his new novel “Mercy“, the narrator shares Littlefield’s introspection.

In the novel, he questions nothing less than the meaning of life in a small town that seems calm, but where inner lives are thunderous. All the while, the novel examines concepts like empathy and, as the book’s title suggests, mercy.

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

Bill Littlefield at WBUR in 2018. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Excerpt from the book: ‘Mercy’

By Bill Littlefield

BOY IN THE YARD

“What did you say?”
“What I could,” I said.
Henry put his coffee down and looked at me.
“How old is he?”
“Eleven,” I say.
“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 am not sure.”
“Yuck,” Henry said. Then, “Jack, maybe we should have some
more coffee.”
“I told him that some people believe that after death you are judged,
and this judgment determines where your spirit or soul will pass
eternity.”
“He’s eleven years old,” said Henry.
“I had to say something,” I said. “Or I thought I had. I told him
some people say you’re going to heaven, which they think is a place where
you see the people you loved when you were alive.
“He didn’t ask about the other people?”
“Of course he did. I told him that the other people had been punished for
everything they had done wrong in their lifetime. Maybe they have to
the sky later.
“How did he take that?”

“He said, ‘Anything you did wrong?’ So I told him it was
maybe only the really important things.
“It must not have helped much at eleven years old. Take an additional cookie,
right?”
“Okay,” I say. “Dumb.”
Henry shrugged. It is a friend.
“I also told him that some people don’t believe you’re going anywhere after
tumors. He thought about it for a minute, then asked if they
I thought you somehow fell asleep.
“Okay,” said Henry.
“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 sleeping.
It’s as if you weren’t. Except people remember you. Some
people.”
“You’ve covered a lot of ground,” Henry said. “I’ll give you this.”
Then he looked at his watch.
“I have to go,” he said. “Ann is taking me to meet her parents.”
But he didn’t get up, and after a while he shook his head and
asked, “How did he take it?” About the people who remember you after
tumors?”
“He said, ‘Like Babe Ruth?’ And I said, ‘Of course. Or Walter Johnson.
“You remember Walter Johnson,” Henry said.
“I was thinking of a story I had read somewhere,” I said.
“Walter Johnson seems like a good guy.”
“Ah,” said Henry. He still hasn’t gotten up. It is a friend.
“I guess I could have said, ‘When you die, you’re going to heaven.'”
“Without a doubt,” said Henry.
“No judgment,” I said.
“Do you think that may be what has troubled him?” The part on
the jugement?”

“He didn’t say he was confused,” I said. “He watched a lot
baseball, you know? Enough to know that sometimes it’s better
the team loses.”
“Where is he now?”
I pointed to the window. The boy was in the middle of the long,
narrow garden with a baseball and a bat. He was throwing the ball
in the air and hitting it, while simultaneously telling a game
full of players only he could see. He wore his jersey, a St.
Louis Cardinals knock-off, with the red bird perched on the yellow
bat. The game does not start for hours. I would take him to
park and watch from the four-row wooden bleachers. On my way
at home we were talking about what he and his teammates had done, who had
well done, that the referee, a high school student, was
good.
Henry looked at the boy for a moment, then said, “What the hell is that?
bric-a-brac under the tree? »
“Treehouse in progress,” I said.
“Not much progress,” Henry said. “But, hey, look at it outside
there, swinging the bat, calling home runs. He seems happy.”
“I hope so,” I said.
Henry stood up and nodded. “Looks like,” he said. “And that
the fact that death is like before being born is not bad.
I’ll try to remember that, just in case.
“Yeah,” I say. “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 bowed. He was smiling.

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

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