What is it about baseball? No other sport in the US inspires anything like the kind of reaction that baseball does: romantic, nostalgic, sentimental, mystical. . . . Do we describe any other sport with words like “verve” and “poetry”? And yet when Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy in the film Bull Durham
delivers the line, “. . . and for one extraordinary June and July, the Durham Bulls began playing baseball with joy and verve and poetry,” it doesn’t feel at all maudlin or overblown. On the contrary, the line rings authentic enough to make the breath catch in the throat just a little bit, maybe even bring a little mist to the eye. As a lifelong soccer fan and only a recent convert to the Church of Baseball (with thanks again to Annie Savoy), I am beginning to think that the reason soccer never took off in the US is that we already had a “beautiful game” of our own. Although its star has waned somewhat in recent decades, the fact is that baseball long reigned as the supreme repository for all our emotionally overwrought sports imagery in the US. Even today, though we may cheer as effusively, argue as exuberantly, and suffer as mightily for our other big-ticket sports, baseball remains the primary province of American sport wherein magic can routinely be found.
W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe
relies entirely on that elemental intersection of baseball and magic in the American popular imagination. It is the story -- now far more familiar to the US public through its Hollywood adaptation, Field of Dreams
-- of an Iowa farmer who heeds an otherworldly call to plough over a not-insignificant portion of his cornfield and build a baseball diamond. (Actually, the call is even more peculiar than that, as he’s first moved to build only a left field.) The farmer, Ray Kinsella, knows without understanding why that the compensation for his work will be to see “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, legendary outfielder for the infamous Chicago Black Sox
(so nicknamed for taking money to throw the 1919 World Series) play major league ball in his backyard. Ray does build it, but the otherworldly announcer is not done with him. Before long, the magical baseball diamond brings others out, both players and spectators, including the celebrated and famously reclusive author J.D Salinger
While the parade of luminaries that pass through its pages is the central conceit of the story and generates plenty of fun, the most important thing about the novel is really what it has to say about how an innate faith in dreams can transform and elevate a person -- and, conversely, how an imagination held in check, or missing altogether, drains the spirit out of life. The power of illusion touches in unexpected ways: Not everyone can see the live game in the ballpark. Ray, a deeply self-reflective fellow, keenly aware of his shortcomings as a farmer and doing his best to be a responsible adult, is nevertheless visited by this magic voice, and his leap of faith in following it yields fantastical rewards. But several other characters see nothing but an empty field. Whether a person can see the field or not says more about his or her innate character than does any other trait. A social renegade can be as rigid and doctrinaire as any old-fashioned schoolmaster, while a modest, struggling farmer can be as unconventional and open to the extraordinary as any self-proclaimed “free spirit”.
Dreams and illusions have their risks, of course, which Salinger’s story most poignantly illustrates, as he spends most of his energy avoiding the legend, and its enraptured followers, that his famous book
created. Ray, too, begins to see how fragile his dreamworld baseball park can be, especially as more and more people become aware of it, and invested in it. In the end, though, the faith in illusions is a liberating force, which unites those who share in it. As such, the book plays a bit of a sneaky trick on the reader, too. By enjoying this book, by accepting the preposterous notion of a small-town Iowa farmer kidnapping J.D. Salinger on a quixotic baseball quest, we show ourselves to be just enough like Ray Kinsella. Half the battle in believing in a miracle is wanting it to be true.
Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable book, a pleasant flight of fancy that got me thinking and kept me engaged. However, I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t point out a major source of complaint for me in the book. This otherwise lovely book is marred by some completely gratuitous racial and ethnic coding that is does nothing to advance the narrative other than substitute the reader’s anticipated biases for actual character development. It does not permeate the narrative, but where it appears, it is so obvious as to be undeniable. First, the Kinsella’s farm is under threat by a vaguely nefarious property development plan engineered by Ray’s brother-in-law and the brother-in-law’s banker/investor partner, a man named. . . Bluestein
. Seriously?? The fact that the only character in the book with even a remotely Semitic last name is a scheming, acquisitive money-man, whose only role is to force this good Iowa farmer off his farm, is too obvious to be an accident. It counts on the reader bringing his or her own stereotypes into the mix to fill in the blanks. Secondly, there is a bizarre incident where Ray walks through a “tough” area of Chicago alone, at night, on his way to a ballgame, and interacts with two young African-American women who warn him that some young African-American men up the block are laying in wait to rob him. Ray debates following their advice, unsure if the warning is really a trap, and he walks by the young men without incident. I can’t begin to understand why this scene is even included in the book. It seems a cheap way to show the reader just how poor Ray is (he has to stay in Black neighborhoods!) and how committed he is to his quest (so much so that he’s willing to walk through a veritable snake pit to get to his goal!). It’s completely unnecessary, and serves mainly to emphasize every stereotype of African Americans. I could not finish my review without mentioning this needless ethnic/racial signaling, which sounded a lingering distasteful note that tainted what could have been a solidly good book.