Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Scoop: Payback Time by Carl Deuker

I'm going to be a famous reporter. My name--Daniel True--will be on the front page of the New York Times. A huge story is waiting for me, and I'll find it--no doubt about it.

Ah, who am I kidding?

There's a lot of doubt about it. Nothing but doubt.

But a guy can dream, can't he?

Daniel, nicknamed Mitch, short for "Michelin Man" in honor of his rotund physique, has reasons to doubt his dreams. Lead reporter for most of the past three years, as a senior Mitch believes he's in line to become editor of his school newspaper, the Lincoln Light. Holding down the editor's job, Mitch hopes, will get him a second look from Columbia's journalism school. But the pretty and popular Alyssa gets the votes of the Lincoln Light's staff and re-assigns him to the job of sports writer. "Mitch, you're the best writer on the staff. Sports is the only thing anybody actually reads," Alyssa explains, as she goes on to outline the big changes she has in mind to get the newspaper actually noticed by students.

Mitch grudgingly admits to himself that he has no choice and shows up, notebook in hand, for the first pre-season football practice, with his assigned photographer, the beautiful and bright Kimi Yon in tow. Lincoln High has a flashy senior quarterback, Horst Diamond, Mitch's elementary school best friend who dropped him when the he couldn't make the middle school team. Coach McNulty is clearly planning to ride Horst's skills into a state championship and a college coaching job for himself. Might as well be along for the ride, Mitch reasons. At least a winning team will get his stuff printed in the local Seattle papers and maybe those by-lines will do something for his college resume.

Kimi is no fan of the arrogant Horst herself, and looking around for someone else to feature in her photos, spots two guys throwing the ball around at the side of the field. One is new to the team, big and buff, older looking than the other boys on the field, and can really rifle the ball. Kimi hustles Mitch over to McNulty to get permission to interview the newcomer:
McNulty stopped and turned around. "What?"

"Mitch wants to interview the guy wearing the number five jersey," Kimi says.

"He was throwing off at the side," I panted. "And he's got an NFL arm. He throws harder than Horst."

McNulty rolls his eyes in impatient disgust, but calls the new guy over, assigns him a receiver, and tells him to throw a few passes.
I waited for the ball to sizzle through the summer air, waited for McNulty's eyebrows to go up, waited for him to look at Kimi and me with respect.

Only the ball didn't sizzle. It looped high in the air and wobbled off to the right.

"That's enough," McNulty said. "Go on, get back with the other guys."

Eliot and Marichal trotted off. McNulty wheeled on me. "Like an NFL pro?"

"He threw a hundred times better before," I mumbled, feeling ridiculous. "A thousand times."

McNulty scowled. "The next time you discover the second coming of Joe Montana, call ESPN. Don't bother me again. Understand?"

Mitch's journalism teacher has told him to look for "the missing piece" in a story, and he and Kimi both sense that something is missing in this player's story. Angel Marichal says he's from Houston, cut from his old team. But despite his obvious speed and size, McNulty plays him sparingly, always at the crucial moment when a strong defensive player can make the difference between a loss and a potential big win. Marichal is clearly the best defensive man on the team, but McNulty never starts him. Mitch is sure that there's a story there, perhaps an illegal ineligibility behind Marichal's shadowy presence on the team.

Kimi and Mitch begin to investigate and uncover some leads: Marichal keeps to himself, even warming the bench at some distance from the other subs; his cumulative record shows his past transcripts and personal data have been removed from his file under McNulty's signature, and he lives in a rundown area with a twenty-something guy in a shabby house with curiously expensive burglar bars all around. And when Mitch's write-ups as a stringer for the Seattle Times recounting Angel's game-saving feats come out, all references by name to the mystery man are deleted. Mitch even calls the newspaper's top sports guy, Chet the Jet, to complain and Chet insists that the gameplay stats he gets don't even show Marichal in the game. There is definitely a missing piece here somewhere, and Mitch and Kimi soon find themselves deeply involved in what may be a life-threatening but career-making story, a story in which a murder and killers-for-hire turn their reporting into much more than a routine high-school assignment.

Carl Deuker's latest, Payback Time (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to be published September 6), is not your average teen sports fiction. There is plenty of gameplay excitement as Lincoln High works its way through the season to the state playoff game, but as told by a believable outsider, a short, overweight kid who just wants to get the big story, the play-by-play becomes part of a mystery and ultimately a real thriller, as Mitch realizes that what he knows and what he does with what he knows can make a life-or-death difference. Unlike some teen sports fiction writers, Deuker doesn't opt to end this one on an ESPN moment or with the predictable happy ending for Mitch, who rather learns that under his Michelin Man image, he has his own solid strengths as well.

Payback Time is a football story that does not disappoint and should not be missed.

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