The Crowd Sounds Happy
Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball is autobiographical, and it focuses on Dawidoff’s attempts to come to terms with his absentee father, who is slowly descending into madness. In December, 2000, Dawidoff wrote an article for The New Yorker about his relationship with his father, and this book amplifies on that material, placing it in a broader context. The book begins as it ends, with his father. His mother, Heidi, is leaving Donald and Washington, D.C., with her children, three-year-old Nicholas and Sally, the baby. They move to New Haven, Connecticut, where Heidi finds work as a teacher, supporting her family by herself since Donald is not paying alimony or child support. Although his parents are divorced, Nicholas and his sister make monthly visits to their father in New York, where he moved after losing his job. In the course of the book, it is revealed that Donald, who graduated from Harvard and Yale Law School and who was an excellent lacrosse player, had mental problems in school and while he was employed first in New York and then in Washington. Donald’s story is about a promising young man whose fortunes declined because of his mental illness. As a child, Nicholas was aware of a problem, but his mother shielded him from a full knowledge of his father’s condition.
In order to stay solvent and sane, Heidi exercises rigid control of her children and her life. Her scrimping and saving and her insistence on doing the right thing (such as returning extra change from a cashier) result in her children being “good,” but it also ostracizes them from other children. Because Heidi will not allow a television set in the house, Nicky and Sally are cultural outsiders among the neighborhood children. Timid and athletically inept, Nicky is always the last one picked in the neighborhood and school kickball games.
The only competition he excels at is reading, and he defeats Binder, his academic rival, by reading more books, but the victory is tainted. Wanting to look good before Miss Swainback, his teacher, Nicky lies to her about reading Sir James Barrie’s play Peter Pan (pr. 1904). For the guilt-ridden Nicky, his “transgression” cannot be redeemed by his actually reading Peter Pan. He must suffer, just as he has paid for asking a friend about where his sister is and finding out that she had been killed earlier. Nicky’s imagination, the product of a morbidly sensitive nature, dwells on the dead girl and leaves him feeling vulnerable. His only escape from the real world is in books, and his favorites are the Hardy boys novels, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), and baseball stories. Reading about the Hardys’ independence, Cather’s Midwest, and athletic success enables him to cope with his kickball failures, his dependence on his mother, and the bleak urban landscape that is New Haven.
His visits to see his father are frightening and confusing. On one trip, his father abandons Nicky, and only by racing can he catch up with his father and avoid being lost. Nicky’s trips to Croton, New York, where his Aunt Susi and Uncle Tony live, do bring him some welcome relief because his mother seems calmer around her sister. Tony and Susi are a “real” couple, and Susi loves the New York Mets and Tom Seaver. In the same way, Nicky’s New Hampshire summers with his mother’s father, a Harvard professor, are relaxing and enjoyable because the two listen to the Red Sox games on the radio. As they listen, his grandfather makes the game seem like a fairy tale with the Boston Red Sox as “knights-errant” and the New York Yankees as “horrible Gilgameshian obstacles to glory.” Dawidoff mentions two athletic outings with his father: the Mets game they attend goes to extra innings, and Nicky discovers that his father does not even like baseball; the other, a football game between Columbia and Harvard, makes his father aware that he cannot go back to his athletic past. Finally, Nicky realizes that the children’s visits are attempts “to make my father seem like a normal dad.”
A year after the Mets outing, Heidi takes Nicky, whose obsession with baseball now includes baseball cards, to Cooperstown, New York, to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. What should have been a wonderful...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)