It's the season for baseball, which always is cause for celebration, and for baseball novels, which this year is not. What we have here are two earnest, highminded and soporific books that attempt to capitalize on baseball's mythic and symbolic aspects but that fail rather conspicuously to do so. The high spirits and good intentions of both authors are admirable; but both make the fatal mistake of assuming that being nice and having one's heart in the right place are adequate substitutes for craftsmanship.
No sport has attracted American novelists so strongly as baseball. It is not difficult to see why. Dark rumors about the game's English origins to the contrary, it is a uniquely American sport. To what has become an urban nation, its pastoral setting and leisurely pace evoke memories of an older America. Its long, rich, complex history is populated by countless larger-than-life characters. Its mythology is made even more attractive to the novelist by baseball's vast storehouse of statistics and the mathematical precision (primarily in multiples of three) of its structure and rhythms.
Baseball has inspired no major works of fiction, but the best baseball books are very good indeed. They include Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al," Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," Mark Harris' "The Southpaw" and "Bang the Drum Slowly," and Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop."--this last arguably the best of all. Among more recent examples, Tom Lorenz's "Guys Like Us" is an exceptional, hilarious novel that received disappointingly slight attention upon publication in 1980, though it did win an important prize for fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Both "Shoeless Joe" and "Ballpark" clearly aspire to be candidates for inclusion in any list of serious novels with baseball settings. Both come heavily equipped with traditional baseball novel themes and atmosphere, both work very hard to supply the jaunty tone that seems thought to be essential to baseball fiction, and both make large capital out of the game's folklore. Both also have their moments, but they are few and far between; neither W.P. Kinsella nor Michael Schiffer knows enough about the craft of fiction to give more than the most rudimentary shape to his work.
For "Shoeless Joe," Kinsella has been given the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, and heaven only knows why; he scarcely belongs in the company of Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Roth, Margaret Walker and Helen Yglesias, among other winners of the prize. "Shoeless Joe" is a book of quite unbelievable self-indulgence, a rambling exercise the only discernible point of which seems to be to demonstrate, ad infinitum and ad nauseam, what a wonderful fellow is its narrator/author. Happiness, in the gospel according to W.P. Kinsella, is a warm baseball fan.
The novel tells of Ray Kinsella, who lives on a cute farm in Iowa with his insufferably lovable wife and his excruciatingly adorable daughter. He dreams about baseball and about building a ballpark on his farm where Shoeless Joe Jackson will come to play--Shoeless Joe, dead nearly three decades, who was thrown out of baseball for life because of his role in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, notwithstanding evidence that he played to his fullest abilities in the tainted World Series. So Kinsella does build his ballpark and--lo and behold--Shoeless Joe does appear.
The idea isn't all that bad: Shoeless Joe, in some ways the ultimate baseball legend, reincarnated in order to fulfill an ardent fan's most cherished dream. But the novel is awful. On top of mounds and mounds of cloying sentimentality, Kinsella piles a major character in the form of J.D. Salinger, whom the narrator lures away from his New England retreat and to whom he says: "Open up your senses, Jerry. Smell the life all around you, touch it, taste it, hear it." By the time the novel has dragged to its close--it is a book that I thought would never end--Kinsella has Salinger speaking in language every bit as gassy and flabby as his own; if Salinger ever has the misfortune to read the book, he is going to suffer a case of acute embarrassment.
As for "Ballpark," it is rather more entertaining than "Shoeless Joe" and rather less self-absorbed, but that is a small compliment. Through the story of a third baseman named Darryl Pardee, a Vietnam veteran, Michael Schiffer bemoans the fast-buck types who have taken over some of the game's franchises and the violence that increasingly characterizes the behavior of some of its fans. Like "Shoeless Joe," "Ballpark" involves a character who sets up his owm stadium, but all resemblances just about end there; while Kinsella concentrates on the romance of baseball, Schiffer has his eye on the greed that can corrupt it.
Schiffer isn't a bad writer and some of his scenes come off with some skill, but like Kinsella he insists on telling the reader what is on his mind even if it is neither interesting nor germane; sending a character on a train through Trenton, he pauses to deliver a few derogatory comments on that city, and flying into Boston he passes over "the long-suffering residents of East Boston." Such comments might be fine in a letter to the editor, but "Ballpark" is not "Herzog"; Schiffer's asides are wholly gratuitous.
Both Kinsella and Schiffer seem to think that if a novelist only goes on long enough about his love for baseball--its beauty and grace, its traditions, its mythology and history--he will eventually produce something worth reading. "Shoeless Joe" and "Ballpark" are vivid evidence to the contrary.