Baseball is an important sport to me. I’m not sure if I’m like other people and see poetry when I watch it, though. There are plenty of bad players, bad plays, and just crap in general that make it really hard for me to see the poetry of the whole thing. But I also see it as a lot more than robots playing out a series of numbers (that argument, and saber metrics, are a whole other topic that doesn’t belong on this page). But I can respect how much baseball evokes that passionate nostalgia in people. I know there are plenty of fans of other sports who have these same feelings about their respective sports – I mean, just ask a hockey fan to wax rhapsodic, they can go on and on – but something feels just a little bit different about baseball, and the mythology of it.
The writer side of me appreciates just about any topic that can evoke that kind of emotional response. That’s what I like about baseball as a writer. What I like about baseball as just your normal person is the way that it’s a single-player game disguised as a team sport. I think that’s part of what invites that poetic nonsense, as people have to jump through some mental hoops to see it as a team sport. It definitely encourages a sense of whimsy and delusion.
Without a doubt, I also have strong nostalgia about baseball. I could go on for hours (and I have, if you’ve seen my Nationals baseball card blog) about my own formative era in baseball, namely the late 80s and early 90s. I played for awhile, and enjoyed the hell out of it. There are days I still wish that I could play. So I understand where the impulse arises from, and find it interesting that there is so much baseball fiction. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of football (1378 titles on Amazon, not counting children’s books) and basketball fiction (roughly 730 titles on Amazon, again excluding children’s books)…including, uh, the greatest book cover of all time:
Respectable, no doubt. But baseball? 2399. And the gap between the others and baseball in children’s fiction is even greater. That’s just a very cursory glance, too. I’m sure there’s more (on all sides).
All of this brings us around to the fact that I was very intrigued when my fiance told me that the movie Field of Dreams was based on a book, Shoeless Joe. And that the book was on sale in the Kindle store. So I went ahead and picked it up and, thus, we’re going to talk about Shoeless Joe.
For those few who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, the concept is basically that a ghostly voice tells a guy to build a baseball field in the middle of his farm. He builds a cursory field and tends to left field first. Shoeless Joe shows up in left field and tells the main character, Ray Kinsella, to finish the field. As he does so, the remains of the Chicago Black Sox team appear, one at each position. Once this is done, Kinsella is sent to find JD Salinger (in the book)/James Earl Jones (in the movie) and take him to find a player named Moonlight Graham, a real baseball player who played one inning in major league baseball in 1905, without ever coming to bat.
Wackiness ensues, and…well, spoiler alert here, Kinsella ends up meeting his father, who is back as a young man playing for this version of the White Sox.
There’s also a subplot that becomes the main plot wherein Kinsella’s brother-in-law and business partner are pressing Kinsella with his unpaid mortgage. The mortgage has gone unpaid because he’s not much of a farmer, and these two are looking to create a giant corporate farming company. You never really get a sense that the farm is in danger, though. At least, not until the “climax”, which brings me to my main issue with the book: the plot meanders. Badly.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the book. It took me a little while to get hooked, but once I did, I burned through it. But the plot just kind of wanders its way along. I was willing to accept the conceit of the voice telling him to do certain things – that’s not such a problem, even though it’s never explained. If you need a disembodied voice to send someone from the middle of the country to the East Coast on a crazy mission, that’s fine, especially within the context. But…well, plot threads pick up, and the resolutions are very “meh”. You never see the resolution of his relationship with his brother. You never learn what happens with the “rapture” of JD Salinger. The resolution to the problem of paying the mortgage, while addressed, is nowhere near as clear-cut as in the movie. Salinger predicts the solution, as James Earl Jones does in the movie, but we don’t actually see it happen.
The climax itself is pretty flat, too. I wasn’t sure how much to give away, but it’s nearly 30 years old, so I’m going to go with it. In the climax, the brother-in-law and his partner come to claim the farm, interrupting one of the ghostly encounters. During the showdown, Kinsella goes to get a gun from his car (one that was placed there earlier in the novel, kudos for following that up). He fires it into the air, which causes his daughter to trip and fall on the bleachers and start choking to death. The afore-mentioned Moonlight Graham, who had become a doctor later in life, transforms into his older self and saves the girl’s life.
Emotionally, it’s kind of all over the place, even just describing. First you have the tension of “will they claim the farm”? Then there’s the gun – will he hurt one of the business partners? Will he end up being arrested for this? What happens to the farm then? etc. Then the daughter falls. Will she die? But what about all those other unanswered questions?
Well, that’s the thing – her falling and choking takes all the wind out of the sails of the encounter with the business partners. Suddenly the mortgage doesn’t matter. The gun doesn’t matter. Everyone forgives one another as they’re racing to save this girl. Once the doctor appears and saves her, everyone is reminded of their mortality, and everything that happened before is erased. The mortgage problem is also conveniently solved at this point.
There is no consequence, and that contributes to this feeling of meandering. You never feel like you get a satisfying resolution to all of these high-stakes situations. It just kind of putters along, then stops.
The book is gorgeously written, though. Here’s a sample of passages that I saved for later:
“Suddenly I thrust my hands wrist-deep into the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”
“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees.”
“The feathered droplet on the ground looked so small; it shivered like an old woman’s hand as I picked it up.”
“Grit crunches underfoot on the unswept sidewalks. Unshaven men with sunken eyes dog my steps. I look at handguns, all heavier than I anticipate, cold as fish, smelling blue and oily.”
Overall, I ended up giving the book four stars on Goodreads. It possibly could have gotten five if the climax had been better. As it is, it probably would have been a three-star book if not for the excellent writing.
The author, W.P. Kinsella, has a very interesting story himself. We’ll look at that tomorrow, along with what was going on in the publishing industry from the early 80s to the mid-90s.