Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kinsella set the bar high with Shoeless Joe

With W.P. Kinsella's new baseball novel, Butterfly Winter, due out in the U.S. next month (it was released on a small scale in Canada in 2011), I'm taking a look back at a couple of his older ones, which are both considered classic works of baseball fiction. Last week I wrote about The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. This time it's Shoeless Joe, which as most readers know was the basis for the 1989 movie Field of Dreams.

I found Shoeless Joe more accessible on first read. Perhaps seeing the movie a number of times primed me, but I think the magic in this one keeps the reader, and the characters, on the same plane, whereas The Iowa Baseball Confederacy has us bouncing all over time, mixing in mythology, fantasy, and tortured love into an epic battle with biblical overtones.

Knowing what happens, at least on a general level, before you read a book takes a little of the fun out of it, of course. It's hard to get as wrapped up in the tension of certain scenes when snippets from the film start running in the back of your mind and eliminate any element of surprise. I found myself following Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan through the narrative, though James Earl Jones, at least was easy to eliminate.

The Terrance Mann character that Jones played was concocted for the movie. In Shoeless Joe, the voice that gives Ray Kinsella messages sends him out to New Hampshire in search of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, who becomes quite a significant character. Real-life Salinger, however, was none too thrilled by fictional Salinger. Lawyers were involved. Threats were made. The movie producers concocted Mann and left Salinger out of the Hollywood version of the story.

There were enough other differences that the book contained a few twists and turns. Ray has an identical twin who shows up on his farm while wandering the country with a circus sideshow. They haven't seen each other in 20 years and have some catching up to do. Ray also befriends (and purchases his farm from) an old ballplayer named Eddie "Kid" Scissons, who claims to have played for the Cubs from 1908-10 and totes around the uniform he intends to be buried in. He too didn't make the screenplay. Conversely, the famous book-banning brawl at the PTA meeting didn't happen in the book.

Perhaps most significantly, the relationship between Ray Kinsella and his father develops very differently in the book. There is no game of catch, hence no famous "Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?" line. When Ray finally musters up the gumption to approach his father, as a young catcher, he is accompanied by his brother Richard, who has up until that point been frustratingly unable to see the players or the action on the field. Both brothers are understandably nervous and excited.

"As the three of us walk across the vast emerald lake that is the outfield, I think of all the things I'll want to talk to the catcher about. I'll guide the conversations, like taking a car around a long, gentle curve in the road, and we'll hardly realize that we're talking of love, and family, and life, and beauty, and friendship, and sharing …"

In many ways, that is also a fair description of the book. With a whole lot of baseball mixed in, of course. There's beauty in both what Kinsella writes about and how he writes it. He splashes color throughout with liberal use of similes to liven his descriptions.

"It is one of those nights when the sky is close enough to touch, so close that looking up is like seeing my own eyes reflected in a rain barrel." … "He goes down slow as a toppling tree, the ball snapping into his glove as little puffs of dust rise in the air all along the length of his body." … "The crack of the bat sounds like a paper bag exploding, yet the sound is cold and lonely, too, like a hunter firing on an endless tundra." … "Mark and Bluestein are rooted to their spots at the foot of the bleacher, as if they've been driven into the ground like pins on a map."

It is justifiably regarded as one of the best baseball novels ever written. Both it, and Iowa Baseball Confederacy have set the bar high for Butterfly Winter. Some of the reviews that came out when it was released in Canada back in 2011 were mixed (Quill & Quire, The Globe and Mail). We shall soon see for ourselves.

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