Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s February, and for sports fans that can mean only one thing: Baseball is just around the corner. Spring training is only a few weeks away, so why not get into the mindset for the game with a look back to a modern classic, W.P. Kinsella′s novel Shoeless Joe. First published in 1982 and originally titled The Dream Field, Kinsella’s novel didn’t debut to overwhelming acclaim in the U.S., although it won the author the 1982 “Books in Canada First Novel Award.” Kinsella had been writing about the Black Sox, the famous White Sox team that threw the World Series in 1919, and while attending the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop he decided to incorporate that event into a fantasy about Shoeless Joe Jackson returning to Iowa to play ball again. The result is what you might call the Great American Novel of the 1980s, now with a legion of fans devoted to the story. The novel includes two major character threads that were excised for the 1989 classic, Field of Dreams, a film that has been named to the Library of Congress as one of the greatest American films of all time, as well as included on two American Film Institute Top 100 lists, nominated for three others, and named the AFI #6 best fantasy film of all time. The book and film are equally superb for different reasons. The film is one of the finest attempts at magical realism on the silver screen, and the magic is at the core of the novel. In the original Kinsella went further than the film, delving into why American love for baseball transcends other sports and pastimes, and he takes readers on an adventure into the intricacies of relationships and human nature.
Shoeless Joe follows Ray Kinsella, one of a set of twin brothers whose father died many years ago. In their teens Ray’s brother Richard gets into an argument with his father and leaves home. Ray gets married, settles in Iowa City and has a daughter named Karin. He begins a life selling insurance, but one day he encounters an elderly man who starts talking baseball with him as he’s walking along the streets of Iowa City. Ray learns that the man, named Eddie Scissons, is the oldest living Chicago Cubs player, and soon strikes up a friendship, ultimately leasing a farm the man can no longer work. The next piece is familiar to moviegoers: Ray hears a voice from the corn, “If you build it he will come,” and understands it to mean he needs to build a left field for Shoeless Joe to return and play baseball again. Ray levels the corn field, and Joe arrives. Unlike the film, this happens over several months. And there’s more: the voice directs Ray cryptically again, this time with the plea, “Ease his pain.” Ray knows the message to mean he must go to find the reclusive The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger and take him to a baseball game. Kinsella, the author, used the living Salinger as a character, but the author didn’t want his name used so the role was altered to the fictional writer Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) for the film. Research by the studio determined potential audiences of the time were no longer familiar with Salinger and the swap did not affect the film.
But Kinsella had reasons to use Salinger in his novel, as Salinger had used two characters with Kinsella’s last name in different works in real life, hence Kinsella’s real-life fascination with Salinger, and the use of Ray and Richard in Shoeless Joe. Unlike the film, whose key points are getting Shoeless Joe, Archie Graham, the famous author, and Kinsella′s father to come to the field, the key point of Shoeless Joe is getting Joe to the field in the first part of the story, but the pinnacle is getting Salinger to reveal his love of baseball, to go into the field, to learn what really lies in The Great Beyond, and hopefully return with a new novel for his fans after the many years of not writing. In reality Salinger stopped publishing, but he didn’t quit writing, all the way to his death in 2010. This week his heirs announced for the first time they would be releasing several of Salinger’s unpublished works after 2020 and over the next 10 years.
Kinsella, the author, loses his way in his story in the final third of the book, taking a sharp tangent with Ray’s brother and his life living with a touring carnival. This happens as the story starts to gain its momentum, and it’s where the film smartly tightened up and edited the story. Splitting Ray into twins prompts the niggling feeling that Ray’s twin may not exist, and instead be a figment of Ray′s imagination (an idea ultimately having no merit). Archie Graham remains the best character in the tale–one of the best supporting characters in all of film and American storytelling–an old ghostly doctor that Ray meets in Minnesota (played in the film by the great Burt Lancaster), who would then be transformed into a young ball player Ray and Salinger pick up hitchhiking on their return to Iowa (played in the film by the great Frank Whaley). Kinsella describes Graham (another real person from MLB’s past) in terms that would make anyone fall in love with Graham, baseball, and the Midwest itself. Notably Ray’s father is but a minor part of the novel, the former minor league player becomes a fill-in catcher the Black Sox need to play for their team. Ray asks “what’s in it for him,” but the answer is deeper. It’s the participation in the magic, witnessing and helping others fulfill their dreams, that is his prize.
Shoeless Joe is a wonderful story, with baseball history tucked into every corner, the best descriptions of Iowa and Iowans since The Music Man and The Straight Story (with greater insight than Iowa tales like The Bridges of Madison County), and sheer magic and fantastical elements that make the novel glow. But it’s Ray′s relationship with Eddie Scissons that is the most poignant. The story would not have been possible without Eddie, and Ray would not forget it. Ultimately this story may not be about merely baseball and ghosts of the past so much as fulfilling the dream of an old man–a story completely removed for purposes of the film (Eddie Scissons as a fictional character is now its own subject of study, the “Eddie Scissons Syndrome”).
W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe stands up more than 35 years later as a classic fantasy and one of the best baseball stories written. Kinsella is the only novelist awarded by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for his contribution to the sport. He’s also written Russian Dolls, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, The Thrill of the Grass, and several other works.
Read Shoeless Joe now as you await the 2019 baseball season. It’s available at your local library, or pick up a copy here at Amazon. And check out our discussions of other baseball novels previously here at borg, The Natural, The House of Daniel, Moneyball, and The Great American Novel.