Friday, April 09, 2010

Like Sevens Come, Elevens Come, Like Manna From the Heavens Come

By Kevin Guilfoile

Earlier this week, as the White Sox and Cubs were read separate fortunes on Opening Day, I was invited to participate in a discussion about baseball literature for local television. Joining me on the panel were Geoff Forsyth, an accomplished short story writer and professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and Terry Sullivan, a former English teacher who is now a scout for the Red Sox. We talked about the long relationship between baseball and fiction, and about our favorite baseball novels, including Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Philip Roth's The Great American Novel, Bernard Malumud's The Natural.

Inevitably the conversation turned to W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the film Field of Dreams was based.

That book of course, is about Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella who, urged on by a voice in his head, carves a perfect baseball field out of valuable farm land and then tries to figure out why he was asked to do it. In his search he drags reclusive writer J.D. Salinger from his New Hampshire home and takes him to Fenway Park. He tracks down a former ballplayer named Moonlight Graham up in Minnesota. The ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson (as well as the rest of the 1919 White Sox) and Ray's own father emerge to play on Ray's field.

If you build it, he will come, the voice had told Ray.

I said the book was about faith. Not religious faith, necessarily, but any sort of compulsion that we don't understand or recognize.

Then Geoff pointed out something that should have been obvious to me.

The story is a perfect metaphor for writing.

Most writers will tell you they don't understand why they do it. Or why they started. Writing a novel, especially a first novel, must seem like insanity to our spouses and friends. A first novel is a diamond carved out of your precious time over months or usually years. If you're persistent enough to finish, there's no guarantee that anything will come of it. In most cases nothing will.

Somehow you're convinced that if you build it, they will come. Agents. Publishers. Readers.

I would bet that four out of five of the American writers I know are baseball fans. Maybe we are drawn to the baseball player's courage and persistence in the face of failure, and the narrow margin between immortality and mediocrity. A baseball player who gets a hit in six-out-of-twenty at bats is an immortal, a Hall of Famer. A player who gets a hit in five-of-twenty at bats is a bust, forgotten except for the record books. That sounds a lot like being a novelist.

Or maybe we're all just Ray Kinsella's following the whispers in our heads.

As long as it's still opening week, what are your favorite baseball novels? Because I still have a long list.

21 comments:

Pete said...

I loved Shoeless Joe, but just as good (and much funnier) is Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, about an epic game between the 1908 Cubs and an Iowa all-star team. The game runs for over 2,000 innings (amidst a biblical downpour which gradually engulfs the entire countryside) as an increasingly maniacal Frank Chance refuses to let the game be called a draw.

Also great is Paul Molloy's A Pennant for the Kremlin, in which the dying, eccentric owner of the White Sox wills the team to Moscow, right in the middle of the Cold War. The Kremlin takes over the team in the midst of a furious pennant race, with expectedly hilarious results.

Libby Hellmann said...

I'm reading Lehane's THE GIVEN DAY right now, and while it's only partly about baseball, I'm enjoying it. Poor Babe Ruth.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Partly about baseball is good. Don DeLillo's UNDERWORLD begins with Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951, and the alleged ball from that homer is a Maguffin for the rest of the novel.

Pete, I haven't read the Molloy, but Roth's THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL is also a satire about baseball and communism. And it's pretty funny (and often dark). One book from the 60s I haven't read but want to after I ran across an excerpt recently is Robert Coover's THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC about an accountant who develops a statistically accurate baseball dice game and then slowly detaches from reality as the game becomes more and more real to him.

And I agree about THE IOWA BASEBALL CONFEDERACY. It's great.

Sara Paretsky said...

I loved DAvid Carkeet's Greatest Slump of All Time, but the baseball book that really stays with me is The Boys of Summer

Mike Dennis said...

Great analogy, Kevin. Tying baseball to writing is a very original slant on the whole effort. It can be extended to examine the overwhelming majority of players who make the major leagues ending up with just so-so stats (can you say "midlist author"?). Some are better than others, but none will ever crack the rarefied stratum of the Hall Of Famers, who by definition are few and far between. Nevertheless, the journeymen keep plugging away, not because they think they'll make the Hall Of Fame, but for the sheer love of the game.

Sean Chercover said...

Kevin - Count me as a fan of Coover's THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC. Great book.

Great post. Looking forward to picking up some book recommendations here...

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