If the reader is himself without ears (which is to say, untrained to read), he will think Henry untrained to write. He will think Henry is nothing but a baseball player. -- Mark Harris
I HAVE LENT an ear to Mark Harris, and he apparently has failed to return it, because, although I do think Henry Wiggen (the hero of It Looked Like For Ever and several other Harris novels) is something more than a baseball player, I think he is something less than a writer. Mark Harris, however, is a fine writer, as he has proved many times in his 15 books, among them, Bang the Drum Slowly.
Henry Wiggen first appeared in 1952, in The Southpaw; he was a star pitcher, the Jim Palmer of a big-league team called the New York Mammoths. Now he is nearing 40; he is the "27th winningest pitcher in baseball history," admired by the nation, an admirer of women, an ardent free-enterpriser and -- here is the problem -- the author of three books: The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly and A Ticket for a Seamstitch. He is also supposed to be the author of It Looked Like For Ever. The conceit is that he is not just the narrator, as Huck Finn was of his book, but the actual author. What we are reading is not a novel, but Henry Wiggen's unedited autobiography, complete with misspellings and other orthographic peculiarities (one of which is in the title).
These are merely iritating; the real problem is that Henry has no ear for dialogue. He cannot, as Mark Harris well could, hear how the other characters in the novel speak. All of them, from Henry's youngest daughter, Hilary, to his New York lawyer, Barbara, speak in the same voice -- Henry's. It is a voice simpleminded, declarative, colloquial and, over the course of an entire novel, exasperating. Moment to moment, though, it can be very funny. Here, for instance, are Henry's doctor's instructions for dealing with prostate trouble:
"Keep a cassette in the bath room and switch it on to your favorite music. Play tapes of old ball games that appeal to you, such as some of your own victories close to your memory. Do not read pornographic literature as it causes excitement without gratification, which is bad for the prostrate gland. My goodness but it is complicated. I tell you, you got more systems in you than Bell Telephone. Infection can be caused by the bowels as well. Explain to me why God in His wisdom placed the jewelry so close to the Out Basket."
In these novels "in the Henry Wiggen manner," as he calls it, Harris is writing in the comic, colloquial tradition of Mark Twain and Ring Lardner. But in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , say the characters other than Huck are premitted to speak in their own voices. Harris says in Short Work of It that Henry "listens not to what people say but to what they mean." We get Henry's interpretation of what the other characters have said. This not only turns the novel into a monologue, it deprives us of other perspectives from which to see and evaluate Henry.
However much in error this tactical decision of Harris' seems to me, the Henry Wiggen novels have been widely read, and from the basis for what fame Harris has achieved. The reader who has followed Henry's career with pleasure will receive more pleasure here. At the opening of It Looked Like For Ever, Henry gets canned by the Mammoths he has served so well for 19 seasons. In order to please Hilary, who has never seen her father pitch, he spends the rest of the book looking for another team that will take him on, traveling as far as Japan in that quest. Along the way we get much of the Wiggen wit, many of his harsh and hypocritical judgements of the America he represents so well, and a measure of his admirable morality about the truly important things: his opposition to war, his loyalty to family.
Short Work of It is a collection of Mark Harris's journalism and essays for magazines as varied as Life and Modern Fiction Studies, with two of his short stores thrown in for good measure. Harris demonstrates in these pieces his breadth as a writer, and his depth, both as an observer of contemporary events and as a man of feeling. He is able to respond with sympathy -- the ability to imagine himself fully and thoughtfully in the place of another person -- to people as diverse as Jacki Robinson, Marilyn Monroe and, perhaps hardest of all for Harris, his father. This is what the best fiction writers are able to do with their characters -- as Harris is able to do with Henry Wiggen -- and when it is done, as it is so rarely done well by journalists, it makes for the best journalism, too.
As a journalist, Mark Harris also has his tough side. There are two hard looks here at Richard Nixon, one writen during the California gubernatorial campaign, one after the resignation ("The danger has always been that he would take the rest of us down with him."). Life magazine sent Harris in 1961 to interview Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost: "I had gone to them," Harris writes in his preface to Short Work of It, "with misconceptions: of Frost as a kindly old rural versifier chewing on a blade of grass; of Sandburg as the tough old revolutionary of city streets; only to discover it was Frost who was the revolutionary, Sandburg still name-dropping at 84, fake, poseur." A sample, then, of what Harris lets us overhear from Sandburg:
"He opened our conversation in a way that somewhat surprised me. 'Have you seen any of my TV shows?' he asked, 'and then I did Wisdom with NBC . . . . You didn't see my Milton Berle Show?' he asked . . . . Nor my lines written to Gene Kelley to dance to?'"
All of these pieces do not come off equally well. Several essays in a section called "How to Live" seem as smug and didactic as that title. The exceptions are two loving prose elegies for his teacher and friend, Alan Swallow, who started and ran single-handedly the Swallow Press.
"revelations of the Past and Future," the last section of Short Work of It, contains the selections in this volume that I like best, in part because they remind me of the best books of Harris' that I have found. "Touching Idamae Low," a fresh, Updikean short story, made me think of Harris' 1970 novel, The Goy. And there are several autobiographical essays, which put me in mind of Harris' wonderful autobiography, Best Father Ever Invented (1976), a book remarkable in its self-knowledge, its humanity and its wit. One of these essays, "getting Into Guinness," makes the astonishing claim that "I have written in my diary every night since January 1, 1934. As of January 1 of this year  this is approximately 15,695 consecutive entries. I believe I may have the world's record both for length-of-the-period of diary-keeping and for consecutiveness." The Guinness Book of World Records was not, as I am, impressed.