The Warsaw Sparks

In 1987, the poet and short-story writer Gary Gildner went to Warsaw on a Fulbright. He had some Polish ancestry, and he had taken a crash course in conversational Polish, but his most important qualification, as it turned out, was his expertise in baseball. One day he was lecturing on American literature at Warsaw University, wearing a Detroit Tigers cap; the next day he was being asked to coach a local baseball team. Though he tried to explain that his pitching career had ended with American Legion ball, his Polish listeners remained unshaken in their belief that he had played with Stan Musial.

Gildner’s account of the joys and travails of coaching the Sparks will delight baseball fans--and anyone who savors the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction incongruities of everyday life. His book, however (the third volume in Singular Lives: The Iowa Series in North American Autobiography), has more complicated ambitions. Besides George Plimpton, Gildner’s literary ancestors include Norman Mailer and some of the more exhibitionistic New Journalists. Interwoven with the baseball tales are scenes featuring Gildner, his lover Vicki, and various Poles. Here the observer observes himself, while attempting to convey the texture of experience in Poland in 1987. Finally, the narrative is occasionally interrupted by one of Gildner’s poems-- flatly prosaic lines that seem perversely calculated to show what passes for poetry these days.

Still, the baseball is worth the price of admission. Gildner’s blow-by-blow account of the Sparks’s first victory deserves to be anthologized with such classics of the genre as the game in Chaim Potok’s THE CHOSEN.