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Tag Archive: baseball novels


   

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.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Summer means baseball, and so it’s time again to delve back into the mythology of the game.  Like every other American sport, baseball is very different than it was when Bernard Malamud wrote his first novel, The Natural, in 1952.  At that point countless fictional stories had been written about the game, yet it’s his story that grabbed the attention of readers and it has since been referred to as both the first great baseball novel and the best ever written.  The novel was made into a major film that was nominated for four Oscars and starred Robert Redford as hero/antihero Roy Hobbs–the film, too, is on many rankings of the best sports movies ever made.  For those who have only seen the film, they’ll find most of the novel familiar, but several differences will make the movie more enjoyable for most.  Roy of the book is an oddity but in different ways than the Roy of the movie.  Malamud’s story is a dressing down of baseball more than an inspiring showcase of the great American pastime.  The movie on the other hand is another film about a fractured sports hero who comes out on top in the end.

For its day, and without the benefit of all the great baseball stories, real or imaginary, that have been passed around since, Malamud’s novel is a fine piece of American literature.  It’s about a young man who creates a baseball bat that he names Wonderboy.  It either possesses some kind of magic, or it’s all in Roy’s head.  Either way, Roy experiences the same bad luck (being at the wrong place at the wrong time results in Roy getting shot), misfortunes (he misses his opportunity to be a professional player because of the gunshot, and so he doesn’t get a chance again until everyone else says he is too old), trials (he’s constantly after the woman who doesn’t care about him when the one we all know he belongs with is right there in front of him), and successes (he eventually albeit briefly gets his fifteen minutes of fame).  Yet Roy’s ego and the general lack of develop of the other characters result in a story with truly no one to care about.  The baseball as backdrop is thin, nothing so deeply researched and vivid, for example, as Harry Turtledove’s The House of Daniel (reviewed here at borg.com last year).  Malamud writes his baseball scenes with the feel of a radio announcer shouting out the stats during gameplay.  His hero/antihero could be a driven character who fails and falls in any story (any sport or any vocation), and it feels like baseball is more of an excuse to tell Roy’s story.

   

Yet there is something about the aura of baseball that Malamud gets right.  His novel does illustrate well the level of superstition among baseball players, which continues today.  His cast of characters may have determined the similar stereotypical cast of characters in every baseball movie since.  Yet Malamud couldn’t find a place for real women in a baseball story, so he populates his story with three odd characters: the first shoots Roy (and incredibly enough was based on a real incident, the shooting of Eddie Waitkus, derived from the dark recesses of baseball lore), the second only has value for Roy because she is attractive, and plays the siren luring him to the dark side (aka rigged gambling), and the third is like some kind of sign from God, a muse for Roy appearing from nowhere to make Roy win at baseball again after a long slump.  So ultimately readers will need to dig deep to find the Americana in the book–hidden between the action you can find it as he revisits his dreams and memories of the past, as he looks out the train windows, and as he tries and fails to figure out what makes him tick.

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