John Sayles Sayles, John (Vol. 7) - Essay

Sayles, John (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sayles, John 1950–

Sayles is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)

In this comic first novel [Pride of the Bimbos] John Sayles does not just ask that disbelief be willingly suspended; he wants it lynched. He offers up a woebegone five-man softball team (the "world renowned Barooklyn Bimmmmmboos") scrounging around for the carnival trade in scraggly Southern hamlets. Not only do the Bimbos play their exhibitions in drag, but they boast one of the shortest shortstops in captivity: Midget "Pogo" Burns, a onetime private detective now running from the giant black pimp he once shot up in San Francisco.

It is before the meeting of this preposterous pair that Pride of the Bimbos excels. Sayles has a deadly accurate ear for Southern cracker dialect …; and the good-ole-boy humor…. Best of all, the gruff friendship between Burns and the young son of a teammate is successfully played for both laughs and pathos; as it does in all initiation tales, the moment comes when the boy must measure up—in this case fill the midget's shoes. When it is not taking outlandish swings at the fences, Pride of the Bimbos proves that it can bang out a succession of good clean singles. (p. 61)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 7, 1975.

Let it be set down here in cold print that [pride of the Bimbos] contains not merely great promise but great substance. Still, it is a first novel. Strike one.

Its central character is a midget, Pogo Burns, formerly a private eye in San Francisco, who is now the shortstop of a five-man softball team that plays comic exhibition games in drag at carnivals traveling through rural Georgia. Strike two.

Like countless forgotten first novels by young American males, the theme of Pride of the Bimbos is manhood in both its senses: masculinity and maturity. And that would be strike three, except that John Sayles knocks the theme right out of the ball park….

Stated … flatly, the theme can sound banal; spun out through 258 pages of magnificent prose, with a host of supporting subthemes and dozens of perfectly realized minor characters, it makes a deep impression and Sayles manipulates it expertly to a violent, ironic conclusion….

A major part of the novel's impact derives from the finely drawn, naturalistic background against which this symbolic confrontation takes place—the rural South, hot and sleepy, as it is experienced by outsiders …, a myriad of small, vivid lives touched in passing but never really known, their ordinariness giving depth and reality to the grotesque drama at center stage.

Meanwhile, below the quiet, realistic surface, Sayles has placed a writhing tangle of themes and symbols, echoes of the book's major theses. In every chapter, there are images of something that is not what it is taken for: a mistaken identity, a disguise, a confusion or self-deception, a lie, kindly or malicious, all forming a network that spells out the unstated premise: nobody is what he seems.

A parallel network of images of violence also pervades the book, often so quietly that unless you are looking for it you don't notice all the shooting, conflict, death and pain the author has spread across his pages….

All this is presented in a prose that will stand the kind of close reading you give a good poem: lean but rich and beautifully controlled, the images chosen with enormous care for their appropriateness in the scene and their resonance in the whole book….

All the images pull together in this book with a smoothness that would do credit to a tenth novel. It is written with wit, style, irony and thematic depth.

Joseph McLellan, "First Time at Bat, It's a Homer," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 24, 1975, p. 1.

Sayles's characters [in "Pride of The Bimbos"] are losers and worse than losers: dumb, failed ballplayers; a topless dancer whose breasts hurt when she swings them onstage; a revivalist preacher who really believes in the power of prayer. Such human flotsam is fine, you are thinking, for Southern gothic background, as a sideshow, but not in the main tent. Sayles's particular strength, however, is to force us to care about his freaks and nonentities. (p. 40)

Sayles does not, however, always have [his] technique of narrative identification under control. Now he is writing in dialect—in the voice of the character whose personality he has momentarily adopted—now, still with the same character, he lapses into formal English…. Even so, Sayles has produced an oddly unsettling satire of American machismo. (pp. 40-1)

Raymond Sokolov, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1975.