Robert Wilson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

[Although] I do think Henry Wiggen (the hero of It Looked Like For Ever and several other Harris novels) is something more than a baseball player, I think he is something less than a writer. Mark Harris, however, is a fine writer, as he has proved many times in his 15 books, among them Bang the Drum Slowly….

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[Henry Wiggen is] nearing 40; he is the "27th winningest pitcher in baseball history," admired by the nation, an admirer of women, an ardent free-enterpriser and—here is the problem—the author of three books: The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly and A Ticket for a Seamstitch. He is also supposed to be the author of It Looked Like For Ever. The conceit is that he is not just the narrator, as Huck Finn was of his book, but the actual author. What we are reading is not a novel, but Henry Wiggen's unedited autobiography, complete with misspellings and other orthographic peculiarities (one of which is in the title).

These are merely irritating; the real problem is that Henry has no ear for dialogue. He cannot, as Mark Harris well could, hear how the other characters in the novel speak….

In these novels "in the Henry Wiggen manner," as he calls it, Harris is writing in the comic, colloquial tradition of Mark Twain and Ring Lardner. But in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, say, the characters other than Huck are permitted to speak in their own voices….

However much in error this tactical decision of Harris' seems to me, the Henry Wiggen novels have been widely read, and form the basis for what fame Harris has achieved. The reader who has followed Henry's career with pleasure will receive more pleasure here….

Short Work of It is a collection of Mark Harris' journalism and essays for magazines as varied as Life and Modern Fiction Studies, with two of his short stories thrown in for good measure. Harris demonstrates in these pieces his breadth as a writer, and his depth, both as an observer of contemporary events and as a man of feeling. He is able to respond with sympathy—the ability to imagine himself fully and thought-fully in the place of another person—to people as diverse as Jackie Robinson, Marilyn Monroe and, perhaps hardest of all for Harris, his father. This is what the best fiction writers are able to do with their characters—as Harris is able to do with Henry Wiggen—and when it is done, as it is so rarely done well by journalists, it makes for the best journalism, too. (p. 8)

All of these pieces do not come off equally well. Several essays in a section called "How to Live" seem as smug and didactic as that title. The exceptions are two loving prose elegies for his teacher and friend, Alan Swallow, who started and ran single-handedly the Swallow Press.

"Revelations of the Past and Future," the last section of Short Work of It, contains the selections in this volume that I like best, in part because they remind me of the best books of Harris' that I have found. "Touching Idamae Low," a fresh, Updikean short story, made me think of Harris' 1970 novel, The Goy. And there are several autobiographical essays, which put me in mind of Harris' wonderful autobiography, Best Father Ever Invented (1976), a book remarkable in its self-knowledge, its humanity and its wit. (p. 10)

Robert Wilson, "Banging the Drum for Mark Harris," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), June 20, 1980, pp. 8, 10.

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