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Tag Archive: The House of Daniel


   

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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Review by C.J. Bunce

As professional baseball takes us into the playoffs this week, we could have a repeat of last year’s World Series, with the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians again vying for the championship.   Just in time, a new Harry Turtledove novel is now in bookstores that will take baseball fans backward in time with a bird’s-eye view of life as a farm team ball player during the Great Depression.  The House of Daniel follows a down on his luck “Okie” as he plays a season of semipro baseball on a team based on the real church-sponsored team called The House of David, known for its religious flavor and long-haired players–an early take on the Harlem Globetrotters but without the theatrics.  During the Great Depression the team barnstormed the country along with dozens of other teams that sprouted out in every corner of small town America, providing a source of income for players and providing the average American a few hours of respite from a bleak reality, all for a few cents per ticket.  Hugo Award winner Turtledove’s account of player Jack Spivey is a fictionalized one, but his knowledge of farm teams and forgotten byways reflects a historic realism that will make you forget this is also a supernatural tale.  Turtledove is known for his alternate histories, and this time he throws in a past with a Kim Newman style change-up, with vampires, wizards, werewolves, voodoo, UFOs, and zombies interspersed in what would otherwise be a typical work of historical fiction.

Baseball fanatics will be impressed, but fantasy readers may not find enough here to satisfy.  In fact, about 100 pages into the novel only the slightest mention of a fantastical element will remind the reader this isn’t entirely straight fiction.  The fantasy elements could easily be excised leaving behind the kind of account that will have you thinking you’ve picked up a lost John Steinbeck novel.  Spivey is a semipro baseball player.  Everyone everywhere is poor, except for the few with power and influence to control the rest.  Spivey is asked to work over a guy by the man who controls him–the price for a bit of protection and relief money, but when Spivey arrives and finds the target of his thuggery is a woman, he tells her to get out of town and he looks for a way out.  Fortunately for him, two ball players for the well-known barnstorming team called The House of Daniel literally collide while fielding a pop fly into the outfield, leaving an opening for Spivey to join up.  Thus begins a long, really-small-town by really-small-town-travelogue, told first person by Spivey, as the team bus takes him and his team across every bump of every gravel highway, into every diner, into every small field, and bunked at every boarding room between Enid, Oklahoma, and Denver, between Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls, and between Seattle and San Diego.  But first Spivey needs to wear a wig and glue on a fake beard until he can grow his own.

Long-haired baseball players from the real House of David team that inspired Turtledove’s House of Daniel team in his novel.

Spivey infrequently looks over his shoulder for the mobster’s hitman who could show up any day to claim his pound of flesh.  Meanwhile we follow Spivey and get to know him and his Southern Oklahoman accent thanks to Turtledove’s believable dialect forged from the Tom Sawyer school of talkin’.  After a few chapters the reader gets the hang of his colloquialisms and from then on it’s hard not to get sucked in.  The road and player’s life on it becomes “old hat” for Spivey, and whenever the meandering, wandering from town to town (with the ultimate destination a tournament in Denver) becomes a bit stale, Turtledove inserts his fantasy bits.  Like a couple of encounters with Depression era vampires trying to con their way into an invitation to the current boarding house.  Or strange lights in the night sky over a small town in New Mexico.  Or zombies, who have replaced slave laborers in some parts of the country.

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