Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kinsella's Iowa Baseball Confederacy a rich tale of fantasy, obsession

Baseball lends itself to obsession. From young boys spending every dime of their allowance money on trading cards to grown men spending every spare moment crunching numbers in a pursuit of the perfect metric, the game's hold runs deep.

Gideon Clarke's fixation is more specific than most. Convinced that the Chicago Cubs visited his hometown in 1908 for an epic exhibition game against a collection of all-stars from a competent but relatively obscure circuit known as the Iowa Baseball Confederacy, he devotes his life to unearthing the evidence to prove the game took place. No hint of the contest can be found in any old newspaper. His communications with the survivors of the players involved prove fruitless. Even the Cubs' own files, which Clarke accesses by pulling off an elaborate ruse, contain nothing.

No setback, however, can shake his determination or dampen his near-religious fervor. At one point the protagonist of W.P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy claims to feel like a prophet. Puppet, however, might be the more accurate descriptor.

His crusade was first waged by his father, Matthew Clarke, who like Gideon came into the knowledge of the Confederacy suddenly and completely, an encyclopedia of names and figures implanted in his brain by a lightning strike the night he met the girl of his dreams. Despite a complete lack of supporting evidence, Matthew submits his narrative of the league in the form of a thesis that is roundly rejected as fantasy by the University of Iowa's Department of History, which recommends he instead consider publishing it as fiction.

Gideon inherits the monomania at age 16, when his father is killed by a foul ball. Suddenly the ramblings of his eccentric dad make sense. Unable to find proof of a game that allegedly went on for weeks, he turns his focus to the larger-than-life Indian warrior, Drifting Away, who is so prominent in Matthew's account of the Confederacy.

Drifting Away was there when the land was cleared to make a baseball field on the outskirts of the town once known as Big Inning but later renamed Onamata, in honor of Drifting Away's wife. He was also present the night Matthew was struck by lightning, in essence receiving his call to enlist in the Indian's battle to be reunited with Onamata's spirit. It is Drifting Away's obsession that kindles that of both father and son Clarke. He toys with their hearts as well, infatuating them with mysterious women who drift in and out of their lives so painfully they spend half their time pining for the wives they can't keep home.

Carrying nothing but his trumpet, Gideon slips through a crack in time-confirming another of his father's wild theories-traveling from 1978 with childhood friend and minor league lifer Stan Rogalski and arriving exactly 70 years earlier, the night before the Cubs come to town. Mistaken for an albino because of his long, white hair, he's adopted by the Confederacy as a good-luck charm and forced to sit on the team's bench as they battle day after day in the pouring rain, somehow matching whatever runs Frank Chance's Chicago club scores, locally renowned hurler Arsenic O'Reilly keeping pace with Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown inning after inning.

When play is suspended the first night, Gideon encounters a young woman named Sarah who looks so much like his wife, Sunny, that he can't help but fall instantly for her. Even when Drifting Away threatens his life, he refuses to give her up, meeting with her night after night when darkness forces the teams to retire until sunup. The game, and the rain, endure through the arrival of famed umpire Bill Klem, visits from President Theodore Roosevelt and Leonardo da Vinci (who claims to have invented baseball in 1506), the deaths of the Cubs' nasty midget mascot Little Walter and numerous players, and the entrance into the lineup of a moving statue called the Black Angel of Death (who winds up hitting .300 for the Confederacy). Torn between his desire to flee with Sarah and his need to know how the game concludes, Gideon winds up staying for the duration as 40 days of rain wash the entire town of Big Inning away. Curiosity finally satisfied, he returns home lonelier and emptier than his father ever was.

"Name me a more perfect game!" Matthew Clarke had been fond of saying to his son. "Name me a game with more possibilities for magic, wizardry, voodoo, hoodoo, enchantment, obsession, possession."

Only such a game could spawn such a book, filled with all of that and so much more that you may need to read it twice to even begin piecing together all the clues and fathom half of what Kinsella has layered into this far-reaching novel. Seemingly offhand comments early in the book take on significance that can only be understood later. Even after two readings, I want to sit down with Kinsella, as Gideon did with Drifting Away, and pepper him with questions about how this universe is really connected.

It's a bit like watching Lost. There's time travel, religious overtones, unknown hands manipulating an often inhospitable environment-all that's missing is a smoke monster. But just like Lost, you don't need to understand every last thing to marvel at the inventive storytelling. That's not to say, however, that you won't become obsessed enough to keep on digging.

No comments:

Post a Comment