Mark Harris

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Donald Hall

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["It Looked Like for Ever"] is not so much about baseball as about aging, just as "Bang the Drum Slowly" was not so much about baseball as it was about dying. It is the strength of all of these novels that Mark Harris uses material that we normally associate with the sports pages and by skill and compassion enlarges what he touches until he reveals us to ourselves—our ordinary, universal lives.

This novel begins with losses. At the age of 39, Henry Wiggen has lost his fastball, and last season he lost all but three ball games. When his old manager drops dead on a golf course, Henry expects to succeed Dutch as manager of the New York Mammoths, but he loses again. At the end of the first chapter, he is passed over for manager and released as a ballplayer. (p. 13)

[The beginning of the book covers] too little of the game itself. This is a pity. Harris's accounts of baseball games and pennant races have always been exciting, the compelling background of action against which his characters have played out their moral dramas. His literary game of baseball is a version of pastoral—a small, intact reduction of the world.

Only one element ever rings false here. When I saw the film of "Bang the Drum Slowly," I was disturbed that the coaches all sounded like Rodney Dangerfield. Reading this novel, I think I understand where the language comes from. Father of the Henry Wiggen novels is clearly Ring Lardner, with Mark Twain a reasonable grandfather. But alas, Damon Runyon is the disreputable uncle, and his accents, The Saturday Evening Post argot of "Guys and Dolls," invade the dugout. (pp. 13, 18)

But Mr. Harris rises above his mannerisms. He remains entertaining, using the pop character of Henry Wiggen to make intelligent moral generalities, which most tellingly include Henry Wiggen's self-doubts….

Writing like Harris's helps us to understand, even to withstand disaster—Vietnam, the meaningless death of the young, an enlarged prostate gland and, in an earlier work of art, the failure of Mudville's Casey.

I look forward to a jumbo "Henry Wiggen Tetralogy," so that I can follow again his 20-year journey—from boyhood in Perkinsville, through the minors to the big leagues, from cocky youth to canny middle age, through triumph and failure and back to Perkinsville again. If I had a vote, I would put Henry Wiggen up for Cooperstown. (p. 18)

Donald Hall, "Henry Wiggen at Liberty," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1979, pp. 13, 18.

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