The recent splash created by Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding lured me into the Great American Baseball Novel Debate once again, because I honestly could not quite put my finger on where Harbach’s handiwork belongs in that pantheon. It’s a helluva book, a good read and an adroitly written novel in many ways, but it’s also discursive, digressive and downright exasperating in spots — a lot like Dee Gordon‘s defensive work for the Dodgers this year. So for perspective, I naturally turned toThe Natural – the Bernard Malamud classic so wildly distorted by Hollywood a generation ago but so much beloved by many as The Great American Baseball Novel for its unflinching, unsentimental treatment of a great but tragic figure in the mid-20th century game.
So how did Harbach stack up to Malamud? Well, it’s a bit like comparing Willie Wilson to Willie Stargell. Or Yogi Berra to Rickey Henderson. Frankly, I found Malamud a bit overrated, given the appearance of a few too many colorful but stock characters. I remained vexed over what to make of The Art of Fielding, in which a lanky college shortstop plays flawless defense, rises to top-tier draft prospect, only to lose his nerve, his mental health and, effectively, his career when a rare errant throw seriously wounds his roommate, who’s reading a book in the dugout. (Well, this is a college baseball team.) What ensues is a bit of Herman Melville-inspired madness in many directions, from prolific drug use among players to promiscuous relationships — the college president’s homosexual affair with the wounded player hurdles toward scandal while the shortstop and his mentor, the team’s catcher, wind up in a love triangle with the campus president’s daughter — whew! — and, yes, there’s an honest-to-goodness college baseball championship pursuit, which mercifully becomes the book’s strongest passage. At times, The Art of Fielding had me pining for the simple joys of a Troy Soos baseball mystery.
So I stepped back to the warning track to gain more perspective. Let’s face it: For its fine use of figurative language, for its creative scope and its fearless undertaking of the baseball odyssey, Shoeless Joe – better known in Hollywood as Field of Dreams – pushed the baseball novel to new imaginative heights. But there’s just one problem with crowning W.P. Kinsella’s masterpiece as The Great American Baseball Novel. It’s only his second-best novel. You laugh? Well, in my book, Kinsella only got better in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, a towering account of the Chicago Cubs traveling to play their minor league affiliate in early 20th century Iowa and of the lead character’s time-travel pursuits to go back to the actual game and prove its existence — only to wind up in an endless, extra innings game that would play on through monsoons for 40 days and 40 nights. Trust me, you have to dip your toes into this one and gradually get up the nerve to dive in, but, oh, what a magical tale Kinsella weaves.
And yet, I know the preponderance of baseball novel purists would laugh me off the mound for pitching this lesser-known Kinsella classic as The Great American Baseball Novel. Such a novel should swing for the fences, shouldn’t it (and Kinsella does)? Like the five-tool prospect, such a novel should wow the reader with its plot, setting, characters, climax and denouement, should it not? The controlled, character-driven tension of Almost Famous by David Small — one of my personal favorites — suffers perhaps from the lack of a stirring climax, and the story of one man’s struggles after the game inexplicably bored some readers. Others have found the fine, coming-of-age baseball novel, Season of the Owl by Miles Wolff Jr., overly derivative. (See To Kill A Mockingbird.) And in this post-Paterno world of fallen heroes, some would find the fascinating 1970s character study by Norman Keifetz, The Sensation, a bit heavy on molestation melodrama and short on baseball convictions.
So what’s a baseball reader to do? Shrug his shoulders and admit that we’re no more likely to determine the unequivocal Great American Baseball Novel than we’re likely to determine who’s the better team: 1927 Yankees or 1976 Reds?
I found myself mired in this line of thought one weekend when my wife and I were about to leave the upper deck of the local Barnes & Noble and my eye caught a striking book jacket under the new fiction sign. The Might Have Been, by Joseph Schuster, proclaimed an important new voice in baseball fiction. I hesitated, recalling my disappointment over another ballyhooed baseball book some years ago, The Slider by Patrick Robinson, a wooden, stilted work I simply couldn’t finish. Would this book be equally underwhelming? I bought it and hoped for the best, figuring I should end my quest for The Great American Baseball Novel by merely reading one more baseball novel for the heck of it, completing my journey with a whimper, and moving on to other reading pursuits.
If you’ve noticed one common theme among the contenders here, it’s that of the suffering player — from Roy Hobbs to Moonlight Graham to Schuster’s Edward Everett Yates. In The Might Have Been, you’ll require several chapters of reading before you become accustomed to the author’s affectation of calling the protagonist by both his first and middle names: Edward Everett did this and Edward Everett did that. We learn, in flashbacks, how Edward Everett seized a 1970s opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, gaining his first at-bat in a pinch hit appearance for Lou Brock. And we quickly learn of Edward Everett’s free fall from the Major Leagues, his series of unfulfilled romantic relationships from minor league player to minor league manager, and his remarkable encounters with marvelously drawn, similarly flawed human beings who build character in Edward Everett even as he inevitably moves on to a new relationship. The pain of what might have been a distinguished Major League career is never far removed from his consciousness, he wears his minor league managerial duties on his sleeve, he carries his game logs and player charts home with him at night, studying them in the company of a seizure-wracked dog after his latest love moves out and furiously fends off his offers of flowers and reconciliation. He thumbs through childhood pictures of a son he’s never met, from a relationship that foundered at the end his playing days. But on game days in Indiana, in towns where he courted the boy’s mother, he scans the faces in the stands and he imagines he sees her, or him — the family he never had.
What endures, what keeps him in the game, is not his masterful baseball instruction of the revolving door of misfits who populate his lineup. What endures are the familial bonds Edward Everett desperately needs, the connection to a cause, the ability to lead a nuclear family of man-children who’ll inevitably find themselves in the same “might have been” universe as Edward Everett. What matters is the connection to each other, through all the seedy motels, bumpy bus rides and dimly lit fields. What matters is a team. Hardly the stuff of great baseball revelations, you say? Where’s the baseball noir and the villainous owner of The Natural? Where’s the literary panache of The Art of Fielding? The field of dreams from Shoeless Joe?
You won’t find them here. What you will find in The Might Have Been are refreshingly nuanced characters, realistically drawn scenes of minor league life, more failure than success between the foul lines, and one courageous coot of a manager. What you will find is that Joe Schuster’s debut may just be the Greatest American Baseball Novel ever written. Period.
Gary Perilloux took the plunge into baseball fiction himself, completing an as-yet unpublished manuscript, Happy, in which a crime committed by St. Louis Browns players during the Bill Veeck era surfaces on the eve of one player’s induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.