Friday, 14 November 2014

Book reviews of The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Shoeless Joe by W P Kinsella

First published in 1952, this is one of the books everyone points to as evidence that Americans can write great novels with sporting themes, and yet, by contrast, British/European writers cannot. You can see in The Natural some of the sources of inspiration for Shoeless Joe and Barry Hines’ The Blinder (see review at:
Like many good books, different people will read different things into it, but, for me, the underlying theme is that male obsessiveness that conflates success in sport with success and happiness in life. And it is particularly male. There is something very odd about sport – and male attitudes to it. Its importance for male mental health is a very interesting subject. Evolutionary biologists may well try to explain it has something to do with being a substitute for war. There is in top sportsmen, that almost self-destructive, single-mindedness to succeed that Steve Davies suggests is the reason there will never be a great female snooker player.
Early on, the main character Roy is talking to Harriet – he is not boasting as such – very earnestly he says:
I feel that I have got it in me – that I am due for something very big. I have to do it.”
Later she asks him:
“What will you hope to accomplish, Roy?”
He had already told her but after a minute remarked, “Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game.
She gazed at him with touched and troubled eyes. “Is that all?”
He tried to penetrate her question. Twice he had answered it and still she was unsatisfied. He couldn’t be sure what she expected him to say. “Is that all?” He repeated. “What more is there?”
“Don’t you know?” she said kindly
He thinks she means money, but she asks: “Isn’t there something over and above earthly things – some more glorious meaning to one’s life and activities?”
He fails Harriet’s test, and she delivers a very harsh, surreal judgment on him.
It is a book heavy with metaphor and I don’t profess to fully understand them all. It is one of those books you probably need to read several times to understand fully (and I’d probably need to know more about baseball than representing my junior school at rounders taught me). However, I think the answer to the main question posed comes later on from Iris, who offers Roy a lifeline that he doesn’t take. She says: “I hate to see a hero fail. There are so few of them.” “Without heroes we’re all plain people and don’t know how far we can go.” “It’s their function to be the best and for the rest of us to understand what they represent and guide ourselves accordingly.”
Roy ultimately fails, and – with a clear reference to Joe Jackson and the famous, but apocryphal, “It ain’t true, is it, Joe?” – one of the last lines is delivered by a paper boy: “Say it ain’t true, Roy.” In a way it’s a shame this isn’t a more accessible book – that message remains so relevant today – there are still so few heroes. So many of the sports stars we look up to ultimately end up in our eyes as bloated, cheats, thugs, misogynists or addicts. The media plays a part in this of course – not just in reporting misdemeanours but in dragging people down – and that is also touched on in the book in the form of the odious Max Mercy, the newspaper reporter. As does dirty money, as represented by Judge Banner and Gus Sands.
I struggled with some of the surreal stuff. It would have been better left out in my opinion. The dreams I could cope with, but Roy’s conjuring performance and his German waiter act, were just ridiculous.
Some of the writing is very lyrical and beautifully done: “As dawn tilted in to night…” – short and simple, but what writer wouldn’t wish they’d thought of that? Or: “The forest stayed with them, climbing hills like an army, shooting down like waterfalls. As the train skirted close in, the trees levelled out and he could see within the woodland the only place he had been truly intimate with in his wanderings, a green world shot through with weird light and strange bird cries, muffled in silence that made the privacy so complete his inmost self had no shame of anything he thought there, and it eased the body-shaking beat of his ambitions.” Or: “Afterwards it was night, lit up by a full moon swimming in lemon juice, but at intervals eclipsed by rain clouds that gathered in dark blots and shuttered the yellow light off the fields and tree tops.”
I also think the scene with Iris at the beach to be one of the best examples of good writing about sex that I have read. It should be a lesson to all those who think graphic detail is somehow clever, or good for flogging books.
So is this evidence that only American novelists can write about sport? In my view, something else is going on. In the same way that the Wright brothers are uniquely celebrated as inventing flight, Americans celebrate and shout about their successes. (As if somehow the Wright brothers awoke one day and said “let’s invent the aeroplane.”  We ignore, or allow to be drowned out, the numerous, early pioneers of flight who contributed, including one John Stringfellow, from Sheffield (had to mention that) who designed the first powered aircraft in 1848.) (The size of the American market must also help in such things.) The Thistle and the Grail, written around the same time, is I believe every bit as good as The Natural and yet it remains largely unknown. I put this down to snobbery and elitism in British literature that would not even deem a novel about a working-class game like football worthy of consideration as ‘literature.’ In America attitudes are perhaps less class-based when it comes to sport. They are happy to celebrate their national pastime. Good on them for that.

Shoeless Joe is another book held up as an example of American writers’ ability to write about sport and capture the passion and the magic of the game. This ability is always contrasted with the failure of anyone to have produced a comparable novel of literary merit about association football/soccer. I had heard this repeated so often that I believed it myself and wrote an article reproduced on my website and blog as Football Fans Won’t Read Fiction. There is still some truth in that title – people say to me “I don’t read fiction, only autobiographies,” – as if it is somehow beneath them – too juvenile – stories are for kids. Which makes about as much sense as saying: “I don’t like paintings – has to be photographs or nothing for me.” However, I was very wrong to go along with the idea that somehow only American sports literature had anything to give.
      Shoeless Joe is not as great as many people claim: it is by far surpassed in literary merit by many association football novels. It perhaps captures the beauty of the sport of baseball to a degree: its romance and its tradition, and it is very evocative in parts – it creates some strong images in your head and the sense of place of the farm in Iowa is undeniable. However, it is also deeply flawed as a novel.
     The plotting is weak – for no apparent reason the main character goes off on several frolics without any back-story or motivation other than that he hears a voice – the first frolic is the building of a baseball park and it magically taking on the appearance of a full sized stadium complete with the ghostly players (but solid and substantial) and real hot dogs. You can just about to go along with this given a little suspension of disbelief. Then he goes off in search of J.D. Salinger – and it just seems to the reader like self-indulgence on the part of the author – it is not essential to the core plot and just introduces a strange character who adds little to the story. Then, by the time they go off in search of information on the most minor of players from the past, you just don’t care any more – the reader has no investment in this minor player and it just provides an over-long side plot that really gets you no further forward. When the main character returns to his Iowa farm you breathe a sigh of relief as you get back to the nearest thing to a plot, having endured a rather tedious road trip.
     The character Eddie Scissions is excellent (apart from his risible evangelical baseball speech: “Praise the name of the baseball. We must tell everyone we meet the true meaning of the word of baseball, and if we do, those we speak to will be changed by the power of that living word!” All that is missing are a few “hallelujahs” and “amens”). However, Scissons is introduced in a bizarre away: in a recollection as the lead character is driving. Rather than being intrigued by his relationship with Scissons you are annoyed at what seems like another diversion from the plot. And then later Scissons crops up in a dream recounted “as an exact videotape replay of a conversation we have had.” Like that always happens: remembering dreams verbatim. We just don’t care about Eddie Scissons at this stage. It is not until he comes to life – not until the reader actually meets him that we started to appreciate what a great character he is – if only we have been properly introduced to him earlier. It’s like at a party when someone drones on about so-and-so and how wonderful and interesting they are – they may well be but if we’ve never met them we are more likely to despise them through such overt praise. The novel would have been much improved if more time has been spent on the main character’s real relationships and how he came to be the special kind of person he is.
     Some of the writing is nice: as I said the sense of place etc. but some is truly awful. There are laughable things like: “a squat little man with terminal five o’clock shadow…” What is terminal five o’clock shadow? Five o’clock shadow that kills you? Or: “when the moonlight illuminates his face I can see that it is covered in question marks?” Presumably like something out of Doctor Who? (If you don’t know what I mean Google: Doctor Who, The Impossible Planet. )
     Kinsella relies over much on metaphors – I like a good metaphor in its place but we are bombarded with them, sometimes several to a page – the author just screaming: “look at me, aren’t I clever?” But some of them are just lame: “silver moustache that quivers like milk.” How does milk quiver? And why is that like a moustache that is not even white but silver? “It’s roof light glowing green as an electric lime.”  What is an electric lime exactly? “Leaves delicately veined as a baby’s hands” Babies hands look nothing like leaves – the veins on a baby’s hand are not something of note. Why? What is “a toothachy May evening?” Then in the ruined last line: “A moon bright as butter silvers the night.” I was okay with an image of a moon as bright as butter – one of those yellowy moons – but then he says it is silver? Butter isn’t silver! And that was my last thought as I finished the book!
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