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W. P. Kinsella 1935-

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(Full name William Patrick Kinsella) Canadian short story writer, editor, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Kinsella's career through 2001.

Kinsella has earned critical acclaim for his short story collections focusing on modern-day Canadian Indians and for his novels and short stories about baseball. Several of his works—including Dance Me Outside (1977) and The Moccasin Telegraph (1984)—attempt to debunk stereotypes and distortions of the North American Indian by portraying contemporary Native Americans struggling to survive in caucasian societies. In the novels Shoeless Joe (1982) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986) and the short story collection The Thrill of the Grass (1984), Kinsella uses the game of baseball as his primary metaphor, focusing less on the onfield exploits of his characters than on the magical and rejuvenating force that the sport provides for its followers. Kinsella's skill at blending fantasy with realism in a poetically whimsical style has been noted by many critics and has prompted comparisons to American humorist Richard Brautigan.

Biographical Information

Kinsella was born in Alberta, Canada, on May 25, 1935, to John Matthew, a contractor, and Olive Mary, a printer. Kinsella's father was a semi-professional baseball player who instilled in his son a love for the game at an early age. Before beginning his career in writing, Kinsella worked at a variety of jobs such as claims investigator, government clerk, and restaurant owner. At the age of thirty-five, he returned to school and received a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Victoria in 1974. In 1976 he was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and received his M.F.A. from the university in 1978. He taught at the University of Iowa from 1976 to 1978 and later taught creative writing and English at the University of Calgary from 1978 to 1983. After the success of his first novel, Shoeless Joe, Kinsella left teaching to pursue a full-time writing career. He won the Books in Canada Award for first novels, the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and the Canadian Authors Association Prize for Shoeless Joe. He has also been awarded the Writers Guild of Alberta O'Hagan novel medal for The Moccasin Telegraph, the Alberta Achievement Award for Excellence in Literature and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor for The Fencepost Chronicles (1986), and the 1987 Author of the Year Award from the Canadian Booksellers Association. Shoeless Joe was adapted for the screen in the 1989 film Field of Dreams, which was nominated for best picture, best score, and best adapted screenplay awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Major Works

Beginning with Dance Me Outside, Kinsella has used Silas Ermineskin, a droll, self-conscious young Cree Indian from Hobbema, Alberta, whose broken English is rich in metaphor and imagery to narrate his series of short story collections focusing on Native Americans, The stories in Dance Me Outside portray the various ways in which Native Americans are conditioned to expect and resign themselves to victimization. The grimness of the subject matter is often lightened by the humorous dissimilarities of caucasian and Native-American lifestyles and worldviews. The Moccasin Telegraph depicts a Native-American community attempting to reconcile their traditional customs with contemporary technological innovations and bureaucratic legislation. Without putting inordinate worth on ancient Native-American culture, Kinsella extols the remnants of native wisdom that have survived in modern North America. In The Fencepost Chronicles Silas Ermineskin returns as a narrator, but the main character in the stories is his comical friend, Fencepost Frank. Silas, now a published writer, and Frank are travelling across Canada to cover the Pope's visit with the Native Americans in the Northwest Territory. Brother Frank's Gospel Hour and Other Stories (1994) continues the Ermineskin series, focusing on the evolving relationship between Silas and Frank. The stories range in tone from light-hearted—“Bull” revolves around an artificial insemination case in the Alberta Supreme Court—to serious—“Rain Birds” examines the results of corporate farming on the environment and “Dream Catcher” explores the reality of child abuse. The title story “Brother Frank's Gospel Hour” follows a staid evangelical gospel show that is disrupted by the colorful residents of Hobbema.

Aside from his works that focus on Native Americans, the dominant motif in the rest of Kinsella's oeuvre is the game of baseball. The novel Shoeless Joe, based on the title story in Kinsella's short story collection Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (1980), is a comic fantasy about an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield in hopes of bringing back to life the late baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson. Ray then kidnaps renowned author—and baseball fan—J. D. Salinger and gathers by supernatural methods an assortment of deceased baseball figures, including his late father, so they can redeem their lives on the playing field. Through a childlike optimism, Ray succeeds in reviving the spirits of all he attracts to the ballpark. The Thrill of the Grass employs realism in half of its stories and fantasy in the others. The realistic pieces chronicle the monotonous, dreary lives of minor-league baseball players waiting for their big break and their relationships with wives and girlfriends who are insensitive to their aspirations. The book's central theme focuses on the loss of youthful expectations and innocence and the disparities between dreams and reality. While most of the stories contain ultimately pessimistic overtones, the use of absurd humor and memorable minor characters lightens their mood. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy again utilizes baseball—this time a game between the all-stars of the mythical Iowa Baseball Confederacy and the 1908 Chicago Cubs—as a sanctuary in which people can sustain their youthful ideals. Kinsella tampers with time and combines realism and fantasy to create a world in which a ballgame lasts forty days in a continual rain. The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories (1993) uses mysticism and conflict to explore the humanistic nature of baseball players. Supernatural events permeate many of the stories, including “The Baseball Wolf” where a shortstop transforms into a wolf in an attempt to revive his fading career. In “The Fadeaway” deceased pitcher Christy Mathewson continues to relay pitching tips to his teammates on the Cleveland Indians through a dugout phone. Kinsella continues his use of baseball as central metaphor in the novel Magic Time (1998) and the short story collection Japanese Baseball and Other Stories (2000), which examines the lives of baseball players in Japan, where the game has become increasingly popular. He has also published several additional novels and short story collections, including Box Socials (1992) and The Alligator Report (1985), which consists of a collection of fanciful, surreal vignettes—named “Brautigans” after author Richard Brautigan—involving unexplainable events that occur in a run-down city neighborhood inhabited by alienated people.

Critical Reception

Although Canadian by birth, most reviewers have categorized Kinsella as a North American writer, rather than a regional writer, due to his recurring fascination with the distinctively American pastime of baseball. While many critics have commended Kinsella's use of baseball as a metaphor for larger, spiritual themes, others have argued that he has overused the sport, noting that his later books often read like a rehashing of his previous works. Reviewers have also noted the recurring elements of nostalgia and magic realism in Kinsella's baseball books, with some finding such passages to be overly mawkish and optimistic. C. Kenneth Pellow has commented that “Shoeless Joe is about as sentimental a work as one should want to find. Indeed, it occasionally veers to the downright saccharine. Still, it maintains, throughout, a synchronizing of fantasy and realism that makes the sentiment palatable and causes one to appreciate the novel's serious artistry.” Most critics have praised Kinsella's regular use of humor in his novels and short stories, asserting that his comic observations often reveal profound truths about his characters and their environments. Don Murray has stated that, “Kinsella is a wit … in that he can perform his magic in ‘alternate universes’ as adroitly as other contemporary authors and he is in tune with the modernism of multiple time schemes and their comic possibilities.” There has been considerable critical debate surrounding Kinsella's portrayal of Native Americans in his works. Several reviewers have criticized Kinsella's attempts at writing Native-American narratives, arguing that, as a caucasian, Kinsella could never fully understand or competently portray Native-American culture. A number of critics have also faulted Kinsella for indulging in Native-American stereotypes. Gerald Vizenor, a noted writer of Chippewa ancestry, has argued that, “[Kinsella's] characters are cornered in racialism and limited in humanness; they act stupid most of the time and speak in a mock patois that is not tribal.” However, other commentators have faulted Kinsella's Native-American works—particularly Born Indian (1981)—for being blatantly unjust to caucasians and overly sympathetic towards Native Americans.

Principal Works

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Dance Me Outside (short stories) 1977; also published as Dance Me Outside: More Tales from the Ermineskin Reserve 1986

Scars: Stories (short stories) 1978

Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (short stories) 1980

Born Indian (short stories) 1981

*Shoeless Joe (novel) 1982

The Moccasin Telegraph (short stories) 1984; also published as The Moccasin Telegraph and Other Tales 1985

The Thrill of the Grass (short stories) 1984

The Alligator Report (short stories) 1985

The Fencepost Chronicles (short stories) 1986

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (novel) 1986

Red Wolf, Red Wolf (short stories) 1987

The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt: Baseball Stories by W. P. Kinsella (short stories) 1988; reprinted as Go the Distance, 1995

Box Socials (novel) 1992

The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories (short stories) 1993

Brother Frank's Gospel Hour and Other Stories (short stories) 1994

The Winter Helen Dropped By (novel) 1995

Magic Time (novel) 1998

Japanese Baseball and Other Stories (short stories) 2000

Baseball Fantastic [editor and contributor] (short stories) 2001

*Based on the title story from Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa.

Wayne Grady (review date 1980-1981)

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SOURCE: Grady, Wayne. “From Majors to Miners, by Way of Left Field.” Books in Canada 9-10 (1980-1981): 8-9.

[In the following review, Grady discusses the true story of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and compares Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa to Sheldon Currie's Glace Bay Miner's Museum.]

For the record, Joseph Jefferson (“Shoeless Joe”) Jackson probably never saw Iowa, let alone played baseball there. There was an Iowa and South Dakota League for two years (1902-03), with teams in LeMars, Sheldon, Rock Rapids, and Sioux City. But Shoeless Joe was born in South Carolina in 1887 and played his Class D ball in the Carolina and Southern Associations in the early years of the century. Clinton, Iowa, had a Class C team in the Northern Association in 1910, but by then Jackson had broken into the majors with Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1910 he moved to the Cleveland Indians, and in 1915 to the Chicago White Sox where, in 1919, he became involved in the famous baseball scandal that changed the popular name for the team from the White Sox to the Black Sox: eight White Sox players, including Jackson, took $80,000 from a group of gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Jackson and his seven co-conspirators were barred from organized baseball for life, and barely missed a five-year jail sentence for defrauding the public. Even those non-fans to whom Babe Ruth is a brand of candy bar have heard how the little boy came up to Jackson after the trial and pleaded, “Say it ain't so, Joe. Say it ain't so.” And how Shoeless Joe hung his head and said, “Yes, kid. I'm afraid it is.”

The main character in the title story of Kinsella's third collection [Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa] is a lot like that wide-eyed kid outside the court room—an innocent determined to believe that the world can be pure and noble and just, that its real heroes are incorruptible, that true farmers enter into mystical union with their land, and that good wives snuggle and smile sweetly when their husbands decide to do something as crazy as build a regulation size baseball park behind the house. In fact he just traces the outlines of the diamond, and spends most of his energy making a perfect left field in the hope that Shoeless Joe, who died in 1951, will materialize to try out the grass. Shoeless Joe played left field: Kinsella claims that Ty Cobb called Jackson “the best left fielder of all time.” Actually, Jackson was most admired by Cobb as a hitter: his.356 lifetime average is still the third highest in the history of baseball, with Cobb's.367 at the top. But Kinsella wants to remember Jackson as a left fielder, and Jackson obliges by showing up and remarking that “the ball bounces true.” It's a heart-warming story, well-written and loony, with just enough touches of sanity to place it, I suppose, in the murky realm of “magic realism.” And Kinsella knows his baseball, a game with its own blend of magic and reality.

Most of the characters in Kinsella's other stories also manage to warp the world into their own personal patterns, although awareness of what is real and what is imagined usually saves the stories from pure escapism. In “Waiting for the Call,” for example, Tipton is an 18-year-old who lives on Manitoba Street, which is called The Pit and is a kind of microcosm of the larger world: surrounded on his street by welfare families, wife beaters, immigrants, Indians, bikers, and hippies, Tipton works out his own ambiguous relationship with reality as he waits for a job on a weather ship to take him away from it. It is clear that the male characters in Kinsella's other stories—“Shoeless Joe” for example, and “Fiona the First”—have not quite outgrown the adolescent fantasies of Tipton. What is disturbing about these stories is that their fantasies are so successful, that they get away with it, that time is not as relentless and unredeeming for them as it is for the bulk of humanity.

In these stories, as perhaps in baseball, time doesn't exist. In baseball, the outcome is not determined by the clock, as it is in hockey and football and sometimes even in chess, but by events. So it is in Kinsella's stories. Many of them take place in transit—a boy between adolescence and maturity, between high school and his first job; a salesman between planes at the Los Angeles airport—and this sense of suspended animation tends to give the impression that the stories don't really take place at all, that nothing happens, that the events are figments or fragments of the writer's or the character's—or our—imagination. When this technique works, as it does in the title story, it can be as exciting as a stolen base in the bottom of the ninth.

It is difficult to imagine a more complete contrast to Kinsella's mid-western twang than Sheldon Currie's Cape Breton lilt [in Glace Bay Miner's Museum], and it is therefore interesting to find so many thematic and even stylistic parallels between the two writers. The dream-like quality of both Kinsella and Currie is a strength when they fire with all eight cylinders, but it is a weakness in the minor pieces. Kinsella, for example, has a trifling story called “Sister Ann of the Cornfields,” in which a nun admonishes a community of Iowa corn farmers with such teleological tidbits as “Christ died for your sins” and “The meek shall inherit, etcetera.” Nothing much else happens. Currie likewise has “Sanabitur Anima Mea,” in which a nun walks into a drinking party in Glace Bay, takes off her clothes, and delivers a lecture (complete with slides) on the evils of smoking cigarettes. Both stories are mercifully short, end suddenly and unsatisfactorily, and exhibit the kind of sexual naivety usually associated with anecdotes about teenaged boys and nuns in isolated Catholic communities. Male menopausal fantasy.

Many of the nine stories in Currie's collection seem to be excerpts from unfinished works-in-progress; another weakness. But the main complaint is that they all want to end with a vision of beatific righteousness that weakens the moral responsibility of the book. “The Lovers,” about a middle-aged businessman who flirts with his secretary and is invited to her apartment for dinner while his wife is out of town, suddenly turns into a piece about bourgeois fidelity in which nothing sexual is accomplished, though a little climax of understanding is achieved nonetheless. Say it ain't so, Joe.

The two best stories in the collection are the first and the last. The first is the title story, a simple study of a girl in Glace Bay who marries a coal miner shortly before he is killed in a cave-in. The style, tone, and point of view of this story are well handled and appropriate, and Currie knows what he wants to say and how. When the realism trails off and the flight of fancy begins the reader already trusts the writer enough to go along with him. This doesn't happen with the shorter stories. “The Glace Bay Miner's Museum” is a kind of prose counterpart to Don Domanski's Cape Breton Island Book of the Dead, and there ought to be more stories like it in this collection.

The last story in the book is “Pomp and Circumstances,” and like Kinsella's “Waiting for the Call” it is about a young boy hovering between adolescence and his first job. Jimmie MacNeil (everyone in Cape Breton seems to be either a MacNeil or a Currie) is the most fully developed character in the collection, and “Pomp and Circumstances” is consequently the most satisfying story. Jimmie, who takes a job as a helper in his godfather's bootleg coal mine, is shameless and picaresque: a regional hero. The story—actually more a novella than a short story—becomes a blend of Gordon Pinsent's The Rowdyman and Dylan Thomas's Rebecca's Daughters, though without some of the strata of the former and much of the lyricism of the latter.

Erling Friis-Baastad (review date October 1981)

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SOURCE: Friis-Baastad, Erling. “Red and White and Bleak All Over.” Books in Canada 10 (October 1981): 15-16.

[In the following excerpt, Friis-Baastad praises the tales in Born Indian, noting that “these stories will move you as only the best products of the art of storytelling can.”]

In his previous short-story collections, Dance Me Outside and Scars, Kinsella introduced his narrator, Silas Ermineskin, and the Indians of a reserve near Hobbema, Alta. In Born Indian he continues to chronicle their misadventures. The cover blurb calls our attention to the great sense of humour that runs through these stories. The publisher certainly isn't putting us on, though it is an oversimplification: as deftly handled as it is, the humour is only one tone on this canvas.

In a review of 77: Best Canadian Short Stories (in the Winter, 1978, issue of The Fiddlehead) John Mills accused Kinsella of taking a typical middle-class liberal's approach to the lives of his characters, and even went so far as to wonder if Kinsella had ever met an Indian. Such a dour pronouncement has more in common with a middle-class liberal attitude than does anything Kinsella writes. Perhaps Mills came to his conclusion because he was dealing with a single story. One would expect a typical white liberal to get bogged down in one mood, just as his extreme opposite number would. Taken together in one volume, Kinsella's stories leap, plunge, and twist through a wide range of emotions.

Events in the title story leave the reader as saddened and numbed as they do the characters themselves. The story is about an old man who tries to maintain custody of his grandchild despite bureaucratic ignorance and sanctimoniousness. In “Indian Struck,” Silas suffers a bitter revelation as to why some white women throw themselves at Indian men.

“Buffalo Jump” presents a dynamic young Tlingit from Alaska who moves to Alberta where he is severely crippled in a shooting incident. This story is a beautiful study of bravery. A very special kind of dignity rides the tension right through to the story's surprising conclusion.

Kinsella works with several levels of humour. Occasionally he treats us to hilarious slapstick, as in “The Killing of Colin Moosefeathers” and “I Remember Horses.” At times, Silas is reduced to a wise-cracking acceptance of fate. Most of the stories are imbued with sardonic political wit. This reaches its ultimate expression with “Weasels and Ermines” in which the medicine woman, Mad Etta, spins dark magic to battle two vengeful rednecks and a meddling constable.

I am certain that W. P. Kinsella was fully aware of the target he would become after daring to publish stories about Indians. I am glad that didn't stop him. Unless you approach Born Indian with hardened preconceptions about the proper way to present minorities in fiction, these stories will move you as only the best products of the art of storytelling can.

Alan Cheuse (review date 23 May 1982)

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SOURCE: Cheuse, Alan. “An Outsider's Homage to Baseball Lore.” Los Angeles Times (23 May 1982): 12.

[In the following review, Cheuse provides a positive assessment of Shoeless Joe, praising the “world of compelling whimsy” that Kinsella created in the novel.]

It was probably only a matter of time, one says with perfect hindsight, before the formation of the Canadian professional baseball franchises led to the appearance of a Canadian novelist with a penchant for writing about the peculiarly North American sport. So on the mound this spring we find W. P. Kinsella, formerly a short-story writer from Calgary in the Canadian leagues, pitching at us an utterly disarming, whimsical knuckler of a novel that won the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award for 1982. It's called Shoeless Joe and it stands as fictional homage to our national pastime, with resonances so American that the book may be grounds for abolishing our northern border.

Ray Kinsella, the novel's narrator, appears to be a doppelganger of the author himself. This Kinsella also loves baseball, but he is U.S.-born and-bred, the son of a minor-league catcher, who, as the novel opens, has given up a lackluster job as an insurance salesman to run a farm outside Iowa City. In a characteristic vision, he hears a voice over a loudspeaker system tell him to build a replica of an old-fashioned baseball park on his property so that his all-time baseball hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, pride of the Chicago White Sox before their great scandal, will return from the spirit world to cavort bare-toed across the newly mowed grass of left field.

Sure enough; Jackson does. And he brings the rest of his tarnished teammates along with him to play out under the lights dreamy narrator Kinsella's idea of paradise on earth.

The rest of the plot comes out of left field as well—Kinsella's next vision informs him that he must kidnap fiction writer and famous recluse J. D. Salinger and take him to a Red Sox game at Boston's Fenway Park. Off heads Ray to New England where he convinces a somewhat reluctant Salinger to join him in his quest for a perfect game. “I could never dream up a plot as bizarre as this,” the bemused writer says midway through their little odyssey as more and more ghosts out of times gone by emerge out of the dugout to warm up on the field.

But bizarre as it is, the plot leads the reader into, rather than distracts from, the nostalgic world of the American pastime and American times past. With rare skill, Kinsella turns his obsessions into metaphors of memory and emotion, convincing us, at least while we're reading his charming creation, that baseball and, yes, writing may be a lot more similar than they at first appear. “Baseball is a … ritual,” narrator Ray explains to author Salinger while the two are driving back to Iowa where they will participate in the further conjuring of sports heroes—and where one of them will himself become a willing spirit in a game with greater stakes, “Good writing is a ritual,” Ray goes on, “so many words or so many pages a day. You must know that. …”

Shoeless Joe in its ritual celebration of the game of baseball proves its author to be a writer worth further conjuring. A baseball book for this season, and perhaps many more to come, it takes its time to create a world of compelling whimsy; but then, as Roger Angell has written, baseball is mainly a matter of time.

Maggie Lewis (review date 9 July 1982)

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SOURCE: Lewis, Maggie. “A Fantasy for Baseball Lovers.” Christian Science Monitor (9 July 1982): 14.

[In the following review, Lewis argues that, despite some “mawkish” passages, Shoeless Joe is a poetic and emotionally satisfying novel.]

To say W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe is a book about resurrection and baseball makes it sound foreboding and silly, and sometimes it is, but that doesn't matter at all.

Shoeless Joe is a fantasy about an Iowa farmer who gets a message to build a baseball diamond, so that Shoeless Joe Jackson, a legendary baseball star who was banned from the game for alleged complicity in throwing the 1919 World Series, will come back and play on it. The message is in the form of a voice, a crackly-with-static baseball announcer's voice, that no one else can hear. He builds it, and Joe comes back, with, eventually, a whole phantom team. There are also phantom popcorn, fans, and hot dogs.

Kinsella does wonders in this book: The visual fantasies are so rich that whether you believe them or not, you can't help imagining them. There is no resisting Ray Kinsella—the protagonist—and his first vision of baseball past:

Moonlight butters the Iowa night: Clover and corn smells are as thick as syrup. I experience a tingling like the tiniest of electric wires touching the back of my neck, sending warm sensations through me. Then, as the lights flare, a scar against the blue-black sky, I see Shoeless Joe Jackson standing out in left field. His feet spread wide, body bent forward from the waist, hands on hips, he waits. I hear the sharp crack of the bat, and Shoeless Joe drifts effortlessly a few steps to his left, raises his right hand to signal for the ball, camps under it for a second or two, catches it, at the same time transferring it to his throwing hand, and fires it to the infield.

Ray Kinsella is a fervently enthusiastic character. You might get tired of mawkish and too physical descriptions of his love for his wife and his insistence on the kittenish cuteness of his daughter. But when he's talking baseball, the enthusiasm is catching. In fact, it was enough to make this reviewer, whose only contact with the game is the memory of being hit on the head with a softball she was supposed to catch, love baseball herself for a while. This is a convincing novelist.

Even when Ray Kinsella kidnaps J. D. Salinger (yes, J. D. Salinger), the novel keeps you believing. It's not so much believing; it's wishing. Things that happen in this book are so wonderful, you feel that if they didn't happen, they should have. Baseball players who had vanished into mythology keep turning up, one by one, night after night. The long-reclusive J. D. Salinger speaks again. The fantasy just keeps getting better. There is no lurking dark side of the story to instruct the reader not to ask too much.

The book must have been pure wish fulfillment for its author, who is described as spending his summer touring US baseball capitals. He has a rare talent for conveying pure joy. He waxes corny and nostalgic, but it doesn't matter, because by then the thrill of seeing all the old baseball stars is yours, too. It gets harder to put the book down as your expectations get going for the next great happening.

The descriptions of landscape are poetic, and the baseball details will warm fans' hearts and not get in the way of mere fantasy lovers. This book would make great reading on a summer vacation. In fact, this book is a summer vacation.

Lesley Choyce (review date November 1984)

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SOURCE: Choyce, Lesley. “Three Hits and a Miss.” Books in Canada 13 (November 1984): 23.

[In the following excerpt, Choice compliments Kinsella's prose in The Thrill of the Grass, noting that the collection is both surprising and engrossing.]

W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe performed one of the rarest accomplishments in my reading history: it successfully sucked me into one man's private modern vision of ecstasy, and that vision wrapped itself like soft calf leather around the sport of baseball. The Thrill of the Grass promised to do it all over again, this time with 11 short stories, each knitting a revised vision of the universe as potential but never fully realized no-hitter.

Penguin wisely allowed three of these four writers to provide their own introductions (S. J. Duncan not being around for the revival of her work), and Kinsella's pitch is this:

Someone once said, “Those who never attempt the absurd never achieve the impossible.” I like to keep attempting the impossible. I like to do audacious things. I like to weave fact and fantasy. I like to alter history.

Kinsella is at his best when he lets the fantasy overtake the facts. In “The Last Pennant before Armageddon,” for example, Chicago Cubs manager Al Tiller has been informed from on high that his team will finally win a pennant but that when it wins (according to some inexplicable holy design) it will signal the end of the world by nuclear war. For Tiller, it's a conflict of interests. For the reader, this unlikely plot works like pure magic.

TV baseball always bores me stiff, yet here's this West Coast Canadian writer, former Edmontonian, ex-life insurance salesman, and retired pizza parlour manager successfully selling me his personal euphoria over baseball. Even in the title story, I genuinely care about the absurd conspiracy to plant patches of real grass, tuft by tuft, back into a big-time ball-park, replacing the synthetic turf and thereby making a stand against the creeping artificiality in contemporary life.

Behind the ecstasy and the magic, however, lies an undercurrent of sadness whenever the real world takes a big enough chunk out of “the game.” “The Baseball Spur,” “Barefoot and Pregnant in Des Moines,” and “Nursie” exhibit the melancholy of professional (public) players trying to live out private lives with minimal success. “Driving toward the Moon,” the only story actually set in Canada, does a masterful job of conveying the angst of a rookie leaguer willing to sacrifice the game for a woman he falls in love with. These are the sort of trade-offs Kinsella worries about when he keeps his fiction down to earth.

Kinsella's baseball world is populated by few genuine winners, and he makes little use of any Howard Cosell play-by-play narrative. He admits in his introduction that stories about athletic heroics bore him. “Ultimately, a fiction writer can be anything except boring,” he states, and since The Thrill of the Grass packs many surprises, it is freighted with no boredom.

W. P. Kinsella and Don Murray (interview date May 1985)

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SOURCE: Kinsella, W. P., and Don Murray. “Prairie Indians and Peregrine Indians: An Interview with W. P. Kinsella.” Wascana Review 20, no. 1 (1985): 93-101.

[In the following interview, Kinsella discusses his depictions of Canadian Indians, his use of humor, and the preliminary plans for the film adaptation of Shoeless Joe.]

The writer W. P. Kinsella, who won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship award and other prizes for his novel Shoeless Joe (1982), has written numerous volumes of short stories: Dance Me Outside (1977), Scars (1978), Born Indian (1981), Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (1980), The Moccasin Telegraph and Other Stories (1983), and The Thrill of the Grass (1984). He is presently working on another book of short stories and a new novel.

Kinsella was born in 1935 in Edmonton, Alberta, and he spent his youth in the country near Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton. After working at various jobs (claims investigator, cab driver, restauranteur), he took a degree in creative writing at the University of Victoria in 1974, and then studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, graduating in 1978. He taught creative writing and freshman English at the University of Calgary for five years, until 1983, when he left that position to devote himself full time to writing.

Kinsella married the writer Ann Knight in Iowa in 1978. The Kinsellas have homes in Iowa City and in White Rock, British Columbia; when they're not at home, they travel the major league baseball circuit in their legendary beat-up Datsun truck. The interview took place in Kinsella's home in White Rock in May of 1985.

[Murray]: A few critics have charged that you rely on stereotypes in your depiction of Canadian Indian life. How did you learn of Indian culture? Where did you learn of their sacred beliefs and how did you discover their humor? When you've written dialogue, have you ever tried to duplicate Indian word usage and speech patterns? Perhaps you have an Indian editor?

[Kinsella]: Well, my first Indian story came about by accident, as all stories do, while I was at the University of Victoria, taking a creative writing class from Leon Rooke. I was trying desperately to think of something that I could write about when I thought of a couple that I knew casually. The young woman was Indian and her husband was white. There must be a story here, I thought, about the clash of the cultures. I raised the question all writers ask themselves, “What if … ?” Should I have this person tell the story? or that? Should I take the story this way or another? Then I thought, what if I put myself in this young man's position? What sort of problems would I face when I brought an Indian girl home to meet my immediate family? My family at that time consisted of a mother and a maiden aunt who lived in retirement in a high rise in Edmonton with a cat and a Bible, and who hadn't seen an Indian in fifty years and didn't plan on seeing one again. And then I thought, well, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner has already been written; but what would happen if I reversed the situation? What kind of problems would an Indian girl have if she were to bring a very straight, not very bright white man home to the reserve to meet her family? And that was where “Illianna Comes Home” came from. I probably chose to tell the story from the point of view of the Indian girl's kid brother because of my experience—I drove a cab first in Edmonton and later in Victoria—with young Indian cab passengers, kids who were so funny although they had very little to laugh about. And so that was how Silas Ermineskin was born.

Although I was living in B.C. then, I had been raised in rural Alberta, near Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton. I originally intended to set the story there because I knew the area. But then, I thought, how do you get someone from Calgary to Lac Ste. Anne? You'd have to drive two hundred miles north to Edmonton, west to the Alberta-B.C. border, north to Lac Ste. Anne, and probably west again. I remembered that there is a reserve near Wetaskiwin on Highway 2, so I set the story there. I didn't know at that time that it was called the Ermineskin Reserve; I probably knew the name subliminally, though I'd never been there. Years before I had been an insurance investigator for a retail credit company and had handled the Camrose-Wetaskiwin area, so that's how the story got its setting. You'll notice that in the first collection of stories, Dance Me Outside, Silas says, “We talk in our language,” because I didn't know whether they were Cree or Stoney or Blackfoot or Assiniboine. It wasn't until the third or fourth story, when I stopped and did research on what tribe actually lived there, that they in fact became Cree.

My talent is for putting myself in the position of another person. I think that I could write about any minority if I chose to do so. There is a “minority mentality” in that minority people are always put upon by the majority people, and the minority always fight back by making fun of the majority. So the oppressed make fun of their oppressors. Silas has an eye for the absurd; he sees all the odd things that the white man does in the name of civilization. He either comments on these things or else presents them with a straight face for the reader to realize how absurd they are.

Did you get much information from books or other historical sources?

I read newspapers carefully and always look for items about native people. For a number of years I subscribed to a magazine called The Saskatchewan Indian. I got most of my names from there because they showed pictures of sports teams and events and gave the names of the players. Occasionally, I got the idea for a story from the magazine. Every issue would feature an article on the significance of that month's moon—I have a story called “Goose Moon” that came right from that magazine. My story called “Bones” came from a newspaper picture of a group of Indians who were occupying a government office in Ontario because the government had dug up some bones and then, instead of reburying them, carted them off to the provincial museum. The Indians wanted the bones back.

The story “Doctor Don” came from a newspaper article on an event in the Queen Charlotte Islands. A man pretended to be a doctor on a reserve and, when he was found out, he committed suicide; but the Indians loved him because he had the gift, not the degree, and the gift of confidence wins half the battle in illness, which is largely psychosomatic.

I've just finished a story in which Silas goes to Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories to cover the Pope's visit. Here we find out what really happened and why Fort Simpson was fogged-in. This story, too, had its origin in the news.

To get back to your question: No, I don't have an Indian editor; and, if you look closely at what I do, you'll find that I don't do anything as far as dialect is concerned. I include some misusage of the word “is”—“Frank and I is going somewhere” instead of “are going”—the inconsistencies of using “say” and “says,” the use of “be” for “is”; but the misusages are decreasing. My feeling is that anyone who has written eighty-some stories, as Silas now has, will have improved his language and sentence structure over the years. Remember, too, that Silas is working with a knowledgeable man who reads his work and corrects his grammar occasionally; so with each book Silas becomes a little more literate, improves his grammar, and uses bigger words, though the writing is still recognizable as that of someone with only a grade seven or eight education.

As to subject matter and tone, did your stories become humorous at a certain point in time?

It wasn't until “Illianna Comes Home” (and after I'd reworked that story in a creative writing course) that I became a humorist. I'd always written everything with deadly seriousness. “Illianna Comes Home” was intended to be a bittersweet comment on race relations; it never occurred to me that it was funny. When I took the story to class, the other students laughed and laughed; at first I was a little put out, because I didn't think that I had written a humorous story. I finally got the idea that, if you can't beat them, join them. If people are going to laugh at my work, they might laugh more if I consciously set out to be funny. So from that point on I've considered myself a humorist. Even in the darkest of my Indian stories, there is always a touch of the absurd.

Are humor and absurdity synonymous, do you think?

I classify humor as innocent or absurd or blatant. There's a certain amount of all three types in my stories. There wasn't too much blatant humor in my early work, but the amount increases in my later stories. There is a lot of absurd humor in the Indian stories. There is also a lot of innocent humor in the early stories where Silas doesn't realize that some of the things that he is telling you are funny. I pretty well had to abandon the innocence later on.

I don't read much humor. I no longer read Buchwald and Bombeck because I don't read the daily paper anymore; I can't stand Eric Nicol; and I find Leacock kind of juvenile.

I'd like to hear a bit more about subject matter and setting. You seem to cross the national boundary line so easily that I wonder if you consider yourself as much an American as a Canadian author. I don't believe that one should call you a Canadian regionalist after the publication of Shoeless Joe.

I hope I'm not considered a regional writer. It's purely a matter of intelligence and economics. When you have 20 million people in Canada—reduced to an audience of about 10 million due to the French factor—and over 200 million people in the U.S., why not write for them all? I consider myself a North American writer. I'm in Canada by accident of birth. My father was an American who came to Alberta but never took out Canadian citizenship. I have a little paper from the American consulate which says that I can have an American passport any time I want one. If it weren't for the medical insurance thing, I guess we would live in the U.S.

“Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Regina” just doesn't cut it. Baseball is an American game; consequently, all but one of my baseball stories have been set in the U.S. One story was set in Calgary, but it was about U.S. players in Calgary. My Indians are Canadian, but they are universal characters. I've had people who know every conceivable tribe from Maine to New Mexico say, “Yes, this is the way it is here.” The Moccasin Telegraph is out in the United States and Dance Me Outside will be out this fall. My original inclination—and I would have done it if the publisher had not put a stop to it—was to go quickly through the book before its American publication and set the stories in Montana, making the characters American Indians. My feeling is that the Americans have no particular interest in Canada and that it would cost me some readers to have the characters Canadian. But David R. Godine [Kinsella's U.S. publisher] said, “No, we want them as they are.” I still think it would be fatal if I set the baseball stories in Canada. As I've said, I write for all the English-speaking people of North America.

Have you thought about describing actual American Indian (as distinct from Canadian Indian) life, in addition to writing the baseball fictions?

Well, as I've said, many of my ideas come from newspapers. I recently read an article, taken from U.S.A. Today, which is titled: “Indian Queen Bucks Tradition, Irks Officials.” It's about a young woman from Oklahoma who didn't wear beads and buckskin to a White House ceremony and consequently had her regal title taken away by the White Mountain Apache tribe. The story is right there; it will be called “The Miss Hobbema Contest.”

I'm working on seven stories at the moment. The one to be called “Frank Pierce, Iowa” is a reincarnation of “The Noontime Sky,” a story written when I was eighteen years old. Another story, which is about a baseball player whose wife is still in love with Elvis Presley, is probably based on my personal experience, though I can't be certain. Several years ago someone sent me a news item about a woman who planted her husband's ashes on the fifty-yard line when they were building B.C. Place—I'm now having this happen at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. I'm also working on a story, “The Eddie Scissons Syndrome,” which is based on Shoeless Joe. I've actually turned up all kinds of people who have lied about having major league careers. Some day I hope to do a nonfiction piece on this subject, if someone will pay me enough for it. I'm also writing a story on a baseball mascot that will be called “Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated.” The story is about creatures in an alien culture who pick up television from earth and the first thing they see is that there are people just like them, but what they are looking at are the mascots at the baseball games. Everyone in this culture looks like the San Diego Chicken. So they send down this guy who becomes the Seattle Albatross—with disastrous results. About a year ago I did a story for Vancouver Magazine, called “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” which was about what happened to Silas and his friends when they came to Vancouver. They wind up on Wreck Beach and Mad Etta gets mistaken for a beached whale by the Greenpeace people.

One of my readers suggested that I bring more of the Ermineskins to the west coast, so I'm now working on a story in which a planeload of them come to Vancouver to hear one of their young women who's been successful as a country singer. In Vancouver they meet a west coast Indian, named Bobby Billy, who runs a pizzeria. [Kinsella once owned such a business.] I think that Frank Fencepost will take over the restaurant.

Another reader told me of a National Enquirer story about a woman who was stabbed ninety-seven times but survived because she was so fat that the wounds were all superficial. This is admittedly a terrible story, but I'm telling it from the woman's point of view. It will be a sad story, quite different from my Indian and baseball stories.

Do you always build toward a whale of a conclusion?

As far as story-writing is concerned, I consider the ending most important—it's everything. Give me a good climax and I'll build the story that leads up to it. I've often written the ending of the story first (for example, the endings to “Black Wampum” and “Longhouse”). This is the easiest sort of story to write. Sometimes you just get a good opening, as in the case of “Goldie” [“Old cowboys is like old cars, broke down most of the time and a lot of expense to whoever own one.”] The ideas for stories come from everywhere. The idea for “Goldie” came from a Waylon Jennings' song that I once heard on the radio.

When you speak of finding ideas in the local paper, do you mean the White Rock Bugle, or whatever it is?

No. One of the things that I do not do is to ever become involved in the place where I'm living. I try to ignore local politics absolutely and completely. I would just as soon ignore provincial politics also. I have no involvement with White Rock and a minimal one with British Columbia and Vancouver. The test of it is that we can go away to the U.S. for two months and find that there may be one item about Canada in U.S.A. Today and that will be the only thing that has been of the slightest importance. The goings-on in British Columbia are not important to the rest of the rest of the world. Why bother yourself with the totally insignificant? I don't get involved in Iowa either [Kinsella owns a house there]. I don't even listen to local radio stations.

I've heard that there's a definite chance that Shoeless Joe will be made into a film. If so, would you want to take an active part in the creation of that film?

Twentieth Century Fox have verbally committed themselves to option the movie and they're putting up enough money for me to take them seriously. No, I don't want to be involved in the process at all, although I might consider being a consultant. I'm too old to learn another trade. And I'm finished with those characters. Screenwriting is a collaborative process and I'm not a collaborator. I'm sure that I'd be very ugly working in conjunction with other people and, after two or three weeks, I'd probably tell them what to do with their script. So it would be better not to get involved at all,

Then you're not afraid of losing control of your original work if it were transformed into another medium? Or would this simply be in keeping with your view of the artist as a purveyor of entertainment?

Yes, I'm a purveyor of goods. A story or novel is like a quality loaf of bread. If you pay the proper price for that loaf of bread, it doesn't matter to me in the least whether you make dainty little sandwiches out of it or feed it to your hogs. That's the analogy I use. I would be disappointed if they made a dreadful teenage movie out of it—“Shoeless Joe Meets Rocky VI”—but their money entitles them to do whatever they please with the material.

Will your next novel convey the same kind of tenderness and solicitude which, to me at least, pervades Shoeless Joe? Or do you think that you'll return to the fantastical air of your later short stories?

I think that The Iowa Baseball Confederacy [Kinsella's novel-in-progress] is a little bit of each. It is again about a man with an obsession, just as Shoeless Joe, is about Ray's obsession with the Black Sox, with Salinger, and with answering the questions that are posed to him. But Shoeless Joe, is, I feel, a story about the power of love and the power of dreams; it's about the ability to chase a dream and make it come true. Baseball is on the periphery in Shoeless Joe. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is much the same, but not quite so gentle a novel as Shoeless Joe. It's about a man who wakes up one morning with the complete history of a baseball league in his head. The “Confederacy” operated from 1902 till 1908 in and around Iowa City, Iowa. The trouble is that he can't find anyone else who will acknowledge that the league ever existed; yet he is certain that there are people still living who know of it.

Sounds like a Twilight Zone script!

Yes! In the second half of the novel he ends up going back to 1908 in order to find out what really happened to the Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Many strange and wonderful things occur on the way. The Black Angel, who is mentioned peripherally in Shoeless Joe, becomes a character playing the outfield in the Confederacy. We have players struck by lightning, a sixteen-foot Indian, and many other oddities, including a rain which lasts for forty days and forty nights.

That sounds like a really great work of biblical proportions! On another topic, Bill, do you believe that the artist has a social function, perhaps a moral role to play in society?

That's like getting involved in politics. I don't like to see the writer or artist meddling in such areas. I don't want to be a sociologist or a moralist or a navel-gazer. The fiction writer's role in life is simply to entertain. If you can slip in something that's profound or symbolic without taking away from the entertainment value of your story, then that's alright. I don't like to see fiction that is incredibly boring because the writer is worrying about life and death.

Although all of your major publications have come out in the past eight years or so, you have accumulated a substantial critical bibliography. Do you pay much attention to reviewers? To academic critics? Who is your best critic? Ann Knight? Or is it Bill Kinsella, the hawkeyed craftsman who spotted a misquotation in one of my reviews of his work?

I think that I'm probably my own best critic because I'm the one who knows what I started out to write in the first place. I think that all writers experience the business of finishing a story and finding that it is only ten or fifteen percent of what they had in mind when they started. That happens to me all the time. I get this wonderful idea; I write the story; when I finish, I feel that I've done only a fraction of what I intended, though it may still be a good story. My wife is a very good critic. She can pick out things that don't quite fit; she notices when a character doesn't act or speak consistently. She has such a good sense of plot that I read my stories aloud to Ann when I finish them. Otherwise, though, I don't pay much attention to critics or reviews; I certainly wouldn't change anything because someone didn't like it.

I've been fortunate in not having many bad reviews over the years. When a bad one appears, it doesn't bother me because I know that my work is good. Reviewing is a very subjective business and I have no objection to a bad review if the person says, “I read this book and hated it because. …” The only thing that upsets me—and I've only answered one review in my whole career—is when it's obvious that the reviewer hasn't read the book. A national magazine [Maclean's] did a review of Shoeless Joe that was just so ignorant it was incredible. The man wasn't even capable of intelligent plot summary because he had the plot entirely wrong. It's no wonder that he didn't like the book! It infuriates me when a person will write a review for a national magazine and hasn't the integrity to read the book.

I actually enjoy reading good critical work, especially academic criticism. I am often extremely critical of academics because I've played the “lit crit” game and know the rules. I often laugh myself silly over interpretations of my work and wind up saying, “What absolute idiocy!” It's very funny to watch a critic probe for hidden meanings which you had no intention to hide. Maybe it's even more foolish than funny when a critic devises an interpretation based on writers that you've never read or even heard of. But it is a fun game, and I do read most of the reviews that come in.

Thank you for an enlightening morning in White Rock.

Roger Kahn (review date 6 July 1986)

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SOURCE: Kahn, Roger. Review of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by W. P. Kinsella. Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 July 1986): 1, 7.

[In the following review, Kahn examines the plot structure and prose of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.]

The centerpiece in W. P. Kinsella's intriguing and sometimes perplexing new novel [The Iowa Baseball Confederacy] is a baseball game between the world champion Chicago Cubs and a band of amateur all-stars that begins either on July 4, 1908, or in a crack in time. The game lasts 2,614 innings and was scheduled as the start of an exhibition double-header. The 2,614-inning figure is correct. The second game of the double-header was canceled.

The cast numbers real characters from the old Cubs, including their so-called peerless leader, Frank Chance. President Theodore Roosevelt makes a cameo appearance and strikes out, waving a big stick. Leonardo da Vinci descends on the field, near the hamlet of Big Inning, Iowa, and reveals that it was he, not Abner Doubleday, who invented the game and sketched out the flawless dimensions of a baseball diamond. “Unfortunately,” Leonardo says, “I lived in a nation of bocce players. It took 300 years for baseball to become popular. By that time, my name was no longer associated with it.”

We also find a straw-haired time-traveling hero named Gideon Clarke, who has sexual difficulties with his wife in the approximate present but finds fulfillment in 1908 with a farm girl named Sarah Swan during night-time interruptions of the long game. A huge and mysterious Indian called Drifting Away is able to control some but not all of the events in Kinsella's story. A cemetery statue called the Black Angel of Death comes to life and covers right field pretty well, catching fly balls in her sculpted stone wings, without a glove. What we have here is something other than an avatar of neo-realism.

Kinsella writes well, often poetically, which at once distinguishes The Iowa Baseball Confederacy from the glut of anecdote-filled ghosted baseball memoirs. We are reading a writer here, a real writer, Muses be praised. But we are also adrift in a delicate world of fantasy, weird deaths and, I suppose, symbolism. Sometimes the work is confusing, as Kinsella adds a fantasy on top of an illusion beyond a mirage. But I never lost my wonder at how the ballgame would turn out; any author who can hold you for 2,614 innings deserves considerable praise.

Gideon Clarke of Onamata, Iowa, is obsessed with proving that the Cubs did travel to Iowa in 1908 and play a game against an all-star team from the Iowa Baseball Confederacy. No one else remembers the encounter because, his father says, “it is a fact that there are cracks in time.” Essentially, the ballgame, and a flood that followed, have fallen into a mysterious crack.

“My father, Matthew,” Gideon observes in a remarkable passage, “dreamed his wife. He lay in his bedroom in the square frame house with green shutters in the Iowa town called Onamata, which, long ago, before the flood, when everything but the church was washed away in the direction of Missouri, was called Big Inning. Wide awake, eyes pressed shut, Matthew Clarke dreamed his ideal woman, conjured her up from the scarlet blackness beneath his lids until she rose before him like a genie, wavery, pulsating.”

Hollyhocks sing, and Matthew sets out to convince the world that the long game actually was played. Only his son, Gideon, believes him, and Matthew commits suicide at County Stadium in Milwaukee by keeping his head in the path of a wicked foul line drive.

With that death, all the knowledge of the game materializes in the brain of young Gideon. Old newspapers show no records. Baseball officials deny that there was a game. But, on a soft summer night, Gideon finds his crack in time, and there they are, Iowa stars from Shoo Fly, Husk and Frank Pierce, players named Henry Pulvermacher and Arsenic O'Reilly. Soon the Cubs arrive with Chance, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and the great pitcher, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown.

Gideon wonders about remaining in the world of 1908, wishes he knew electronics so he could invent television. You wonder whether he will stay and how and if the game will end as Kinsella's work proceeds to phantasmagoria.

Except for an occasional excess, I found The Iowa Baseball Confederacy fun and lyric and poignant. A febrile imagination has had a field day, 2,614 innings long.

Jeffrey Wallach (review date March 1987)

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SOURCE: Wallach, Jeffrey. “Game without Limits.” American Book Review (March 1987): 8.

[In the following review, Wallach discusses the similarities and differences between The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Morry Frank's Every Young Man's Dream.]

Name me a more perfect game! Name me a game with more possibilities for magic, wizardry, voodoo, hoodoo, enchantment, obsession, possession. There's always time for daydreaming, time to create your own illusions at the ballpark. I bet there isn't a magician anywhere who doesn't love baseball.

—W. P. Kinsella, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy

Baseball is a game without limits. It is a game of infinite possibilities not measured by seconds ticking off a stadium clock, nor by the parameters of an enclosed playing field. A baseball game may continue until Armageddon unless both teams are able to put out twenty-seven batters, and though a team may be losing by one hundred runs there is always the possibility of redemption in the bottom of the ninth. The baseball field, too, is without limits. The foul lines extend infinitely outward, and no boundary determines how far a ball may be hit, or how far a fielder may track it to make a play. A pop fly may travel forever up into the blue sky. The only limits placed on a baseball game are the limits supposed by those who play in it, the limits—forever expanding—of our accomplishments.

It is this notion of unlimited possibility that makes baseball the most magical of games, a sport in which anything can happen. Two recent novels focus on the boundless possibilities inherent in baseball, but from very different perspectives. W. P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy employs baseball as a magical vehicle for self-discovery across the realistic limits of time. The book also includes a particular baseball contest that makes the most of possibility; it is a game that you will never forget.

Every Young Man's Dream, a first novel by Morry Frank, also suggests that baseball is imbued with magical powers, particularly having to do with the redemption of lost souls and marginally talented minor league ballplayers. Darrel Skaits, a terminally minor league shortstop, narrates this book and manages to kill off the magic not only of baseball, but of life and literature as well. Though Darrel suggests that baseball could redeem his wayward life, he fails to capitalize on any of the magic inherent in the game. Rather than being redeemed, he is left regretful and mean.

Kinsella's novel is redolent with magic. When Gideon Clarke's father commits suicide by letting himself be hit in the head by a line drive at a Milwaukee Brewers game, Gideon discovers that a strange transformation has taken place in his own head; Gideon instantaneously inherits his father's knowledge about a baseball game played in 1908 between the Chicago Cubs and the Iowa Baseball Confederacy all-stars, Gideon also inherits his father's obsession to prove that the game actually occurred, though all records of it—including human memories—have for some reason been erased from the world.

It is not in the least unusual in Kinsella's magical world that Gideon Clarke steps through a crack in time back to the year 1908 to view the historic contest. The game itself slogs on through forty days of rain for 2,614 innings, during which time Gideon falls in love, meets Leonardo Da Vinci and President Theodore Roosevelt, and comes to understand that the game is being manipulated by a 300-year-old Indian whose wife's reincarnation depends on the Confederacy all-stars beating the Cubs.

Kinsella has created an entire world as unlikely and fathomless as the 2,614 inning game itself, a world reminiscent of Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association. By manifesting the limitlessness of baseball and the potential for magical occurrence within the scope of the sport he manages to expand our conceptions of the possible. His novel is ultimately about love and obsession; by learning the secrets surrounding the Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and why the memories of it have been erased from men's minds, Gideon Clarke learns about the working of magic, and the possibilities of redemption that exist not only within baseball, but in the world.

In Morry Frank's Every Young Man's Dream, Darrel Skaits whines for several hundred pages about why he never made it to “the Bigs.” Mostly, Darrel claims, it is because certain managers and sportswriters took a dislike to him and ruined his career. It doesn't occur to Darrel that their dislike might have been caused by the fact that he is a thief, a rapist, and a misanthrope.

While baseball is not really central to this novel, the game does stand out as the only splash of hope in a dry, dirty world. It represents everything that could go right for a man; as in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, baseball holds the possibility of redemption. If Darrel could just make it to the major leagues he would be a changed person.

But he does not make it to the bigs, and by the end of the novel the reader has joined forces with the managers and sportswriters who dislike Darrel Skaits so unequivocally. Morry Frank has created a character for whom there can be no sympathy, and Darrel's first person narrative becomes tiresome and offensive so early in the book that I kept reading only because I believed some kind of change was inevitable, that perhaps baseball would redeem Darrel in some way after all. While Morry Frank is a good storyteller—the structure of the book and the way it moves between the periods in Darrel's life resemble Bellow's narrative of the life of Augie March—the stories he tells are not pleasant and seem to lead nowhere.

Every Young Man's Dream suggests to us that the game of baseball contains magical possibilities. But the book itself and the life of its protagonist are completely without magic. Even the depiction of baseball in these pages is a portrait of unlikable, unlucky characters demonstrating their bodily functions in public and wishing there were something more to their worlds. They inhabit the kind of reality that exists in the wake of lost opportunities for redemption.

Neil Randall (essay date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Randall, Neil. “Shoeless Joe: Fantasy and the Humor of Fellow-Feeling.” Modern Fiction Studies 33, no. 1 (spring 1987): 173-82.

[In the following essay, Randall draws comparisons between the ways that Kinsella and authors Thomas Carlyle and J. R. R. Tolkien approach humor in their works.]

In his essay on Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, Thomas Carlyle writes of a humor that manifests itself in smile rather than laughter. “Richter is a man of mirth,” says Carlyle, whose humor is “capricious … quaint … [and] heartfelt” (15). The three adjectives represent for Carlyle the essence of what he terms “true humor” because they suggest Richter's enormous respect for humanity. “True humor,” he goes on to say, “springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love; it issues not in laughter, but in still smiles, which lie far deeper” (17). These smiles are not Hobbesian smirks of superiority1 but genuine signs of compassion for, sympathy toward, and empathy with the object of the humor. Carlyle further provides a direct link between humor and both pathos and nobility; the link is the smile of the caring man. For Carlyle, this smile is one of “fellow-feeling”:

It has sometimes been made a wonder that things so discordant should go together; that men of humour are often likewise men of sensibility. But the wonder should rather be to see them divided; to find true genial humour dwelling in a mind that was coarse or callous. The essence of humour is sensibility; warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence.

(16)

The humor of fellow-feeling denies humor that negates or denies life. Black humor, of course, with its laughter at the fallen, is anti-Carlylean,2 but in some senses so is Mikhail Bakhtin's carnival humor, not because it is life-denying (it expressly is not) but because its dependence on the “lower body stratum” and indecent language renders it, in Carlyle's terms, “coarse or callous.” True humor, for Carlyle, is affirmative without being coarse, a celebration of life without the outrageousness of Bakhtinian festivity. The problem with such humor, of course, is that it is apt to become, well, mushy. Out of context, the phrase “warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence” gives an image of a flower-child communing with nature on a soft-focus day in 1967, hardly the stuff of an inspiring novel. But the humor of fellow-feeling in fiction, I think, despite its inherent nostalgic dangers, is more complex than this. It demands that we grow to love the characters, and it forces us to examine why we do so. If done well, and this is the hard part, Carlylean humor asks of us a willing suspension of distrust and cynicism.

One of the twentieth century's most renowned practitioners of Carlylean fellow-feeling is J. R. R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings demands that we suspend cynicism, asks us to smile benignly on its hobbits, and insists that we love its characters. If we do so, we are rewarded with beauty and terror, joy and sorrow, and a true sense of the sublime. If we do not, the book is meaningless. Edmund Wilson, among others, found Tolkien's demands impossible, even as W. H. Auden accepted and praised them. But Tolkien knew precisely what he was asking. His famous essay “On Fairy Stories” presents his theories of fantasy, one of them being the insistence on the “consolation of the happy ending.” Among the important elements of this consolation is the experience, in the reader, of the fantastic “turn”:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its elements, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any literary art. … In such stories when the “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

(68-69)

The “piercing glimpse of joy,” Tolkien goes on to say, is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (71). The Tolkienesque turn, to be sure, takes us beyond Carlyle's “warm, tender fellow-feeling,” but the two ideas are clearly related. The goals for both men, one through humor and the other through fantasy, are truth, goodness, and, we can presume, beauty.

Toward the end of W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, Moonlight Graham walks off the playing field of Ray Kinsella's magical ballpark to treat Ray's daughter, Karin. Ray describes the scene as follows:

Then I feel compelled to look at the baseball field. In order to do that, I stand up and walk a few steps up the bleacher. What I see is Moonlight Graham loping in from right field, lithe, dark, athletic: the same handsome young man who played that one inning of baseball in 1905. But as he moves closer, his features begin to change, his step slows. He seems to become smaller. His baseball uniform fades away and is replaced by a black overcoat. His baseball cap is gone, supplanted by a thatch of white hair. As I watch, his glove miraculously turns into a black bag. The man who without a backward glance walks around the corner of the fence—a place where none of the other players will venture—is not Moonlight Graham, the baseball player of long ago, but the Doc Graham I spoke with on the moonlit night in Chisholm, Minnesota, when I flew softly across the dimensions of time. …

(247)

I wonder how much he has sacrificed to save Karin's life. It seems to me that he will never be able to walk back onto the ballfield as Moonlight Graham. He has violated some cosmic rule that I vaguely know exists, and do not even attempt to understand.

(249)

To understand how such an incident triggers a humor of fellow-feeling, and I argue that it does, it will help to examine the stylistics, the “turns,” and the necessity for belief in Tolkienesque fantasy. Shoeless Joe merges Carlyle's humor with Tolkien's fantastic, and the resulting demands on the reader are many.

In fantasy, Tolkien writes in “On Fairy Stories,” “new form is made … Man becomes a sub-creator” (22). Furthermore, for the subcreation, the Secondary World, to be successful, requires the reader's belief. Tolkien distinguishes between the need for “belief” and the more commonly used Coleridgean “willing suspension of disbelief,” suggesting that the latter is necessary only if the former fails:

“willing suspension of disbelief” … does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games of make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of art that has for us failed.

(37)

We do not suspend disbelief, then, until belief itself has been lost, and then we never recapture the initial belief. For enchantment to work, for the Secondary World to be accepted, we must believe in it in a primary way.

The demands placed on the reader of Shoeless Joe, then, are great. The book asks of us the highest degree of belief: we must accept a magical ballpark within the Primary World of modern Iowa. Tolkien himself, in his creative works, never makes such enormous demands; he never brings the Primary World into his texts. Even fantasies that do contain both Primary and Secondary Worlds—Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant—rarely have both worlds operating at the same time. Shoeless Joe's Secondary World seems to be confined to the magical ballpark (a technique similar to the closed-off world of Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place), but in fact it is not. J. D. Salinger, another of Ray's creations, hears the Voice while watching a baseball game in Fenway Park, and Moonlight Graham appears during Ray's visit to Chisholm. The Secondary World, in fact, seems to follow Ray around, another feature that tests our belief.

Shoeless Joe's success at drawing our belief (and most of the reviews suggest that it has been successful3) is the result, I think, of the book's use of Carlylean fellow-feeling. Ray must appear to us as a character with whom we can sympathize, with whom we can share the bizarre journey he makes across the continent to kidnap Salinger and the unreal circumstances under which Shoeless Joe Jackson comes to life. If we are to be drawn into the world without the willing suspension of disbelief, we must never lose sympathy with Ray's quest. To retain that sympathy, Ray must prove himself worthy; he must invoke our fellow-feeling. He must, in short, enchant us.

Linguistically, says Tolkien, the adjective has, in its ability to transform nouns, the power of enchantment:

The human mind, endowed with powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things … but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. … When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power.

(22)

One short passage from the first part of Shoeless Joe will suffice to demonstrate the Tolkienesque stylistics in Kinsella's descriptions. This kind of passage can be found almost by opening the book at random:

I carried out a hose, and, making the spray so fine it was scarcely more than fog, I sprayed the soft, shaggy spring grass all that chilled night. My hands ached and my face became wet and cold, but, as I watched, the spray froze on the grass, enclosing each blade in a gossamer-crystal coating of ice. A covering that served like a coat of armor to dispel the real frost that was set like a weasel upon killing in the night. I seemed to stand taller than ever before as the sun rose, turning the ice to eye-dazzling droplets, each a prism, making the field an orgy of rainbows.

(9-10)

The adjectives “soft,” “shaggy,” and “spring,” which precede “grass,” alter the meaning of “grass,” making us see not only that it is grass, but also that it is spring, shaggy, and soft. “Spring” imbues the grass with youth and hope, “shaggy” with both the domesticity of a living-room carpet and the playful innocence of the family sheep-dog, and “soft” with a pleasurable tactility and a dreamlike quality. The spray does not simply cover the grass with ice; it works magic by “enclosing each blade in a gossamer-crystal coating of ice.” All elements of this nonfinite clause are important to the creation of magical effect: “enclosing” suggests a loving, godlike attention to “each blade,” and the metaphoric noun-modifier “gossamer-crystal” emphasizes both the fineness of the strand and the glasslike beauty of the coating. These modifiers, in turn, render the harsh monosyllable “ice” beautiful rather than deadly, a notion confirmed by the subsequent simile of the armor. Finally, the ice is magically transformed through metaphor not once but twice, into “eye-dazzling droplets” (itself an adjectivally oriented phrase) and then into a prism. As a prism, the ice further transforms, making the field “an orgy of rainbows,” and rainbows themselves are signs of magical legend. The act of watering the grass is now an act of enchantment.

Baseball itself, Ray tells us, enchants. It is both timeless (85), with largely unchanging rules and a wholly unhurried atmosphere, and perfect, “solid, true, pure and precious as diamonds” (92). Furthermore, like all enchantments, it can transform:

Within the baselines anything can happen. Tides can reverse; oceans can open. That's why they say, “The game is never over until the last man is out.” Colors can change, lives can alter, anything is possible in this gentle, flawless, loving game.

(92)

With its transformative abilities and its qualities of gentleness, flawlessness, and lovingness, baseball brings together Tolkienesque fantasy and Carlylean humor. Baseball becomes, of course, a metaphor for what Ray espouses as important writing, the gentle, flawless, loving kind practiced by Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, a metaphor realized only at the novel's end when Salinger accompanies the ghostly players through the fence, promising Ray that he will fulfill his duty as writer. With that promise, baseball and writing become one.

“The consolation of fairy-stories,” writes Tolkien, is “the joy of the happy ending”:

this joy … is not essentially “escapist” or “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or other-world—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

(68)

Perhaps the most notable quality of Shoeless Joe is its continual attempt at joyfulness. Ray Kinsella, the narrator and main character, is above all a happy man, one who understands the possibility of joy as it comes through the magic of creation and the fulfillment of dreams. To Salinger he says, “I'm one of the few happy men in the United States” (83), and the novel certainly bears this out. But for Tolkien joy does not imply only happiness; in fact, he states that the “joy of deliverance” is possible only through “dyscatastrophe,” through sorrow and failure. What separates the joy of true fantasy from the sentimentality of simple nostalgia is precisely this dyscatastrophe. What dyscatastrophe means is that true joy is achieved only with the recognition of immense loss.

The moments of joy mixed with loss Tolkien calls “turns.” For Tolkien, the turn gives us—along with “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart,” and “a piercing glimpse of joy”—not only “a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’” (71). There are at least four major turns in Shoeless Joe: Kid Scisson's failure on the diamond; Ray's questioning of the phantom ballplayers; Salinger's departure at the novel's end; and Moonlight Graham's sacrifice. Each provides a moment that is true in Ray's world as he has defined it, and each brings the emotional reactions and the glimpse of joy that Tolkien demands.

Eddie Scissons, the fraudulent “oldest living Chicago Cub” (216), receives, through the magic of Ray's ballpark, a chance to fulfill his desire to pitch for the Cubs. Ray's magic has already granted Moonlight Graham his dearest wish—to play in the majors—and we expect that Scissons will be similarly successful. But, unlike Graham, Scissons simply is not good enough for the majors; his chance on the mound fails, and he is humiliated. “[W]hen most people reach out for their heart's desire,” Ray tells us, “it appears not as a horse but as a tiger, and they are rewarded with snarls, frustration, and disillusionment” (218). Scissons' failure is a turn precisely because it is a failure, and we have not seen Ray's magic fail before. That failure confirms the “truth” of Ray's Secondary World because in its allowance for failure it ceases to be a Never-Never Land and becomes a valid Secondary World.

The novel's second turn similarly destroys the seemingly pure felicity of Ray's magic. When Ray asks of the ballplayers, “What do you become when you walk through that door in center field?” (221), he is asking the question that has, throughout the novel, concerned us as well. But in asking it he is attempting what seems an impossible task: to bridge the gap that must exist between the subcreator and his creation. Of all the characters in the book, Ray alone is unable to discover precisely what his magic does. This gap seems confirmed by the placement of the question: immediately after the players have asked Ray if they can help work the farm to make it profitable, a similar attempt to cross the gap between Primary and Secondary Worlds. Like Ray, we have feared throughout that attempting such a crossing will destroy the magic completely, and now our fears are confirmed:

“But can you do that,” I say. “I've never seen any of you anywhere except on the field. What do you become when you walk through that door in center field?”

The silence that follows is long and ominous. I feel like I have just stomped across an innocent children's game, or broken a doll.

“We sleep,” says Chick Gandil finally.

“And wait,” says Happy Felsch.

“And dream,” says Joe Jackson. “Oh, how we dream. …” He stops, the look of awe and rapture on his face enough of an explanation.

The magic has been broken.

(221)

As in the Eddie Scissons case, the magic cannot process an impossible wish, one at odds with the truth of Ray's Secondary World. The turn here is first that the question has been asked and second that the answer has broken the magic. We fear it has been irretrievably lost.

J. D. Salinger, at the end of the novel, provides another turn by leaving with the players through the gate in center field. He thus becomes the only character to leave the Primary World and enter the Secondary. We are initially startled at this crossing, especially after the destruction of magic at Ray's attempt to bridge the worlds, but Salinger's “rapture,” as the title of the last section calls it, becomes possible when we realize that he is as much Ray's creation as are the players and is thus not subject to the same law as Ray. Salinger's explanation of why the players chose him, and not Ray, further clarifies the incident and establishes the turn:

“I thought of turning them down,” says Salinger. “I really did. Telling them it was you who created them—you who deserves to be first. But then I thought, they must know; there must be a reason for them to choose me, just as there was a reason for them to choose you, and Iowa, and this farm. …

“If you can package up your jealousy for a few minutes, you'll see that I'm right. I'm unattached. My family is grown up. And,” he says, smiling sardonically at me, “if I have the courage to do this, then you'll have to stop badgering me about the other business [publishing new fiction]. I mean, publishing is such a pale horse compared to this. But what a story it will make”—and his voice rises—“a man being able to touch the perfect dream. I'll write of it. I promise.”

(263)

Salinger can enter the Secondary World because he has understood his moral duty as a writer. This is, of course, the end of Ray's quest—to find Salinger and “ease his pain.” We catch our breath at the mere possibility of Salinger's entering the Secondary World, and we feel the joy of the quest's fulfillment. But it is a joy mixed with loss: like Ray, we have come to know Salinger, and with his passing something of happiness also passes.

The final turn I shall discuss is Moonlight Graham's sacrifice (quoted above). As a Tolkienesque turn it is perhaps the most climactic scene in the book: Graham is the only character to make the transition from the Secondary to the Primary World, and the nobility of his action is wondrous. Of all the scenes in the novel, this is, I think, the most likely to elicit the tears that accompany a turn, first for Graham's nobility and second for his subsequent show of humility. “Well, now,” he says immediately after making the transformation from Moonlight Graham to Doc Graham, “it's lucky I happened on the scene, Ray Kinsella. That little girl wouldn't have lasted much longer” (248-249). Graham here is no longer the Moonlight Graham we have come to know but is rather the Doc Graham we met on Ray's journey through time in Chisholm, Minnesota, and this consistency furthers the internal truth of Ray's Secondary World. Once again the turn mixes a “piercing glimpse of joy” (at Graham's nobility) with a profound sense of loss (at what Graham has given up).

Graham's sacrifice reflects as well the novel's theme of moral duty. Moonlight Graham must face his duty as a doctor to save a life, thereby sacrificing his dream of baseball. J. D. Salinger must realize his duty as a writer, thereby sacrificing his solitude. And Ray Kinsella must affirm his duties as husband/father and as enchanter, thereby sacrificing his desire to enter his own Secondary World and keep it for himself. In essence, each of these duties demands the sharing of one's gifts: Graham his medical skill, Salinger his writing, Ray his magic, and all their ability to impart joy.

On seeing the magical baseball game for the first time, Salinger insists that Ray share it:

“This is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. You have to share.”

“With whom?” [Ray asks.] “How many? How do we select? And first, how do we make people believe?” …

“You're difficult to convince.”

“The pot calling the kettle names. But don't you see, we have little to do with this. We aren't the ones who decide who can see and who can't. Wouldn't I let my own twin brother see my miracle if I could?” But more important than that, the way you feel now is the way people feel who react to your work. If I share, then so must you.”

(201-202)

Moral fiction is one of Shoeless Joe's primary concerns, going so far as to speak internally of it. Ray frequently attempts to convince Salinger to publish, but Salinger refuses on the grounds that readers will not allow it. “It's a sad time when the world won't listen to stories about good men,” he says. “It's one of the reasons I don't publish anymore” (133). Ray has already suggested that the similarity between a baseball player and a writer is that each “dispenses joy” (133), and he replies to Salinger by quoting a fan letter:

You do something in your stories that few writers do well—especially today—and that is to make your reader love your characters. They exude a warm glow. They are so real, so vulnerable, so good, that they remind me of that side of human nature which makes living and loving and striving after dreams worth the effort. I, for one, came away with a delicious smile on my face and a soft little tear in my eye—and I felt pretty damn good about being alive for the rest of the day.

(134)

The fan letter emphasizes the power that the moral writer has on a sympathetic reader, and it summarizes the effect W. P. Kinsella strives for in Shoeless Joe. Ray, Annie, Doc Graham, and J. D. Salinger all “exude a warm glow” and are all seemingly real and unquestionably vulnerable and good. Ray spends the entire novel “living and loving and striving after dreams,” and he strives as well to fulfill the dreams of others. After meeting his now-youthful father on the baseball field in another Tolkienesque turn, Ray plans how he will manage future encounters. “I'll guide the conversations,” he says, “like taking a car around a long, gentle curve in the road, and we'll hardly realize that we're talking of love, and family, and life, and beauty, and friendship, and sharing” (255). Like Salinger, Ray has learned to share; he has accepted his duty, and the duty for both men rests on fellow-feeling—on sharing, on real friendship, on good, true, Carlylean humor.

The novel's effect on us is precisely that which the fan attributes to the writings of J. D. Salinger. Shoeless Joe is a moral book, but it does not bludgeon its morality into us. Rather, it presents us with characters we can love and whose life we want to share. It is a humorous book, but instead of laughing at its characters we smile with them in the spirit of Carlylean fellow-feeling. The characters' goodness, because it is true in Ray's Secondary World, causes “a delicious smile” to come to us, and the Tolkienesque turns bring “a soft little tear” to our eyes. The novel's humor of fellow-feeling is essential for both the fantasy and the morality to be accepted because without it Shoeless Joe would be in danger of becoming didactic and nostalgic. As it is, the humor works. It dominates the book, reflects theme, style, and character, and makes us come away in the end feeling “pretty damn good about being alive for the rest of the day.”

Notes

  1. Thomas Hobbes's theories of humor, from the Treatise on Human Nature (1650), have been considered by many humor theorists. The power of these theories shows itself in the amount of recent research that seems to expand on them. See Leonard Feinberg; Norman Holland; and Lawrence La Fave, Jay Haddad, and William A. Maesen.

  2. For discussions of black humor, see Max F. Schultz and Terry Heller.

  3. Some comments from the novel's reviews are useful here. In “Pride of the Sox” (the discussion of the First Novels Award), the judges comment. Anne Collins suggests that Shoeless Joe is “covered with a sticky-sweet nostalgia for simpler times that was hard to take in the long run.” This view is similar to that of Ian Pearson, who writes, “Ray's alternate universe of baseball is too contrived to be seductive, and the pace is too sluggish to work as a madcap picaresque.” More common, though, are the favorable reviews. In “Pride of the Sox” Jack Hodgins comments that the novel “distinguishes itself not only by the energy of its prose and the entertaining developments of its plot but also by the way in which it reveals itself to be a story about writing stories, about concerns of the spirit, and about the need for wonder.” Gwendolyn MacEwan confirms this viewpoint, saying that the book “is a wonderfully life-affirming novel that takes countless risks. … A great part of Kinsella's intention in this novel is to make the reader happy, and in this he succeeds beyond a doubt.” John Richardson combines the two reactions: “Although Kinsella's novel was mawkish and sentimental in certain passages, the book's ingenuity, humanity, and descriptions of baseball and Ray's love for the game shine through on every page.” Maggie Lewis, reviewing the book in The Christian Science Monitor, says that Kinsella “has a rare talent for conveying pure joy.” William Plummer calls it a “wonderfully hokey” novel, and Terrence Cox uses the fan letter, with which I end this article, to express Kinsella's intent.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “At the End of the Quest, Victory.” New York Times Book Review 22 Jan. 1956. Rpt. in The Tolkien Scrapbook. Ed. Alida Becker. Philadelphia: Running, 1978. 44-48.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT P, 1965.

Carlyle, Thomas. “Jean Paul Friedich Richter.” Thomas Carlyle: Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 5 Vols. London: Chapman, 1985. 1: 1-25.

Cox, Terrence. Rev. of Shoeless Joe. Quill and Quire 48.6 (1982): 32.

Feinberg, Leonard. The Secret of Humor. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1978.

Heller, Terry. “Notes and Techniques in Black Humor.” Thalia 2.3 (1979-80): 15-21.

Holland, Norman. Laughing: A Psychology of Humor. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Kinsella, W. P. Shoeless Joe. Boston: Houghton, 1982.

La Fave, Lawrence, Jay Haddad, and William A. Maesen. “Superiority, Enhanced Self-Esteem, and Perceived Incongruity Humour Theory.” Humour and Laughter: Theory, Research, and Applications. Ed. Anthony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot. London: Wiley, 1976.

Lewis, Maggie. “A Fantasy for Baseball Lovers.” Rev. of Shoeless Joe. The Christian Science Monitor 9 July 1982: 14.

Pearson, Ian. “Fantasy Strikes Out.” Rev. of Shoeless Joe. Maclean's 19 April 1982: 59, 61.

Plummer, William. Rev. of Shoeless Joe. Newsweek 23 April 1982: 64-65.

———. “Pride of the Sox.” Books in Canada April 1983: 8-9.

Schultz, Max F. “Towards a Definition of Black Humor.” Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature. Ed. Sarah Balcher Cohen. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” Tree and Leaf. London: Allen, 1964. Rpt. in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 3-84.

Wilson, Edmund. “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” The Nation 14 April 1956. Rpt. in The Tolkien Scrapbook. Ed. Alida Becker. Philadelphia: Running, 1978. 50-55.

Don Murray (review date 1987)

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SOURCE: Murray, Don. “A Note on W. P. Kinsella's Humor.” International Fiction Review 14, no. 2 (1987): 98-9.

[In the following review, Murray asserts that humor is one of the dominant motifs in Kinsella's body of work.]

The Canadian author W. P. Kinsella has published two novels and over one hundred short stories, anecdotes, and brief “surreal” sketches (which he calls Brautigans after the late American humorist) since he first began to publish fiction in the mid-1970s.1 Kinsella revitalizes old images and situations (the joy of playing together, the chill of isolation), blends romantic fantasy with baseball humor, and brings people out of the cold or off the Indian Reserve and into the pages of humorous books.

Humor is the basic ingredient in Kinsella's books. From the earliest collections of Indian stories, through the experimental forms of his non-Indian narratives and his celebrated first novel, Shoeless Joe (1982), to his most recent Indian stories and second baseball novel, Kinsella has depicted life's amusing incongruities.2 The humor of Kinsella's narratives derives from both plot and character, which are interdependent but amenable to separate discussion.

First, with respect to plot (in Kinsella's case: comic complications of action), this humor includes the pratfalls of farce, the slight tribulations of love affairs and business dealings, the more profoundly comic relationships that often develop between individuals or groups and the institutions (religious, legal, educational, and the commercial “media”) which are supposed to support, not disrupt, human life and harmony; and there are also the special cases of situational comedy, involving various perspectives (physical, metaphysical, supernatural), where dislocations of space and time transform the mechanics of farce into fantasy. At its farthest remove from realism, a Kinsellan plot posits a world in which degrees of anarchy are undoubtedly justified and unquestionably funny. This is a traditional domain of comedy—once called carnevale—whose spirit is inseparable from the fiber of the people.

Second, with respect to characterization in his works, Kinsella's people are most engaging when they strike the chord of our common humanity. Overall, there is little viciousness in their actions and little vitriol in their words. Kinsella's narratives fit the definition of humor as a relatively harmless species of the genre comedy.3

We are drawn toward Kinsella's world because of its essential goodness and gentleness. Despite the risible social commentary, the anticlericalism of a few stories, the political wisecracks in a number of others, Kinsella is not known as a satirist; despite the racial context of much of his work, only a minority of his readers (perhaps they are the perceptive ones?) see him as a racist. Kinsella's humor is inseparable from the freshness and the benign unreality of his world; as one critic writes, in reviewing Kinsella's recent Fencepost Chronicles, he reminds us that “prairie fiction need not follow the rigid strictures of an outdated naturalism.”4 Kinsella's characters often say uncommonly funny things because they dwell in a comic world; but their creator does not play elaborate wordgames. Kinsella is not a “witty” writer devoted to verbal ironies and seven (magic number!) types of ambiguities. Like other memorable writers, he gives us the vivid image, the arresting simile, and he has the ability to revive dead language: as when grass is secretly put in place of artificial turf at a ballpark and the old-time fans “raise their heads like ponies, as far away as the parking lot, when the thrill of the grass reaches their nostrils.” W. P. Kinsella is one of those rare storytellers who can turn writing into a mode of magic—so enthralling is his spell. Kinsella is a wit, moreover, in that he can perform his magic in “alternate universes” as adroitly as other contemporary authors and he is in tune with the modernism of multiple time schemes and their comic possibilities. Finally, W. P. Kinsella is a moralist whose vision of man is tonic and stable; as Neil Randall recently demonstrated, Kinsella uses humor to unite “theme, style, and character” into a beneficent whole.5

Notes

  1. For a detailed list of Kinsella's works, see Don Murray, The Fiction of W. P. Kinsella: Tall Tales in Various Voices (Fredericton: York Press, 1987).

  2. Shoeless Joe won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award upon publication. In May of 1987 Kinsella won Canada's prestigious Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor; the next month he took the Canadian Book Publishers' author-of-the-year award.

  3. See, e.g., M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed. (New York and Toronto: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981).

  4. Mark Duncan, rev. of The Fencepost Chronicles, in Border Crossings, 6 (June 1987). 24.

  5. Neil Randall, “Shoeless Joe: Fantasy and the Humor of Fellow-Feeling,” Modern Fiction Studies, 33 (Spring 1987), 173-83.

Gerald Vizenor (review date 20 December 1987)

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SOURCE: Vizenor, Gerald. “Playing Indian for the White Man.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 December 1987): 11.

[In the following review, Native-American author Vizenor criticizes Kinsella's portrayals of Canadian Indians, stating that “humor is no excuse to exploit negative preconceptions about tribal people.”]

Silas Ermineskin, the narrator in this collection of stories, was hired to write about the Pope's visit with tribal people in the Northwest Territories. Silas is not pleased when he learns that he and his friend must sleep in a tent with other reporters.

“I mean knowing about the outdoors don't come naturally to Indians. … We like hotel rooms, Kentucky Fried Chicken, video games, riding in taxis, and electric guitars.”

W. P. Kinsella, who was born on a farm near Edmunton, Alberta, has earned wide recognition for his wild imagination and rash humor as a writer. He has published two novels about baseball (Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy) and several collections of stories about Indians, including The Moccasin Telegraph.

The author does not claim to be an Indian; however, a tribal view is implied because Silas Ermineskin, the narrator of these “hilarious Indian tales,” speaks to the reader in a first-person voice. The author restrains the narrator and holds back the rich humanness of tribal experience.

“I know they figure if they give all us Indians enough hockey sticks, basketballs and volleyballs, we forget our land claims, quit drinking too much, get good so we can have the weekends off to play games,” said the narrator.

Ermineskin is a fictional narrator, but imagination does not absolve racialism; humor is no excuse to exploit negative preconceptions about tribal people. The author plays Indian for a white audience.

There are 13 stories in The Fencepost Chronicles about corrupt tribal leaders, trouble on the reserve, survival schemes, and communal drinking. “No matter what they say it wasn't us that started the riot at St. Edouard Hockey Arena,” is the first sentence of the book. Three pages later, the narrator explains, “We stop for lunch in a town called Elk Point, actually we stop at the bar … most of the team is serious drinkers.” The author continues this “firewater” theme from “The Moccasin Telegraph.” There is too much alcohol in these stories; Indians seem to do the drinking while whites do the thinking. The Indians even weaken Sgt. Cujo, a police dog, with alcohol. “He has developed a real taste for home-brew.”

In a story about a cultural exchange program, the characters are wondering what they would exchange: “I'll teach them how to drink,” said Frank Fencepost. “That's part of our culture, ain't it?”

Fencepost tells about the time Baptiste Wind telephoned the local Alcoholics Anonymous: “‘Do you guys take cara drunksh?’ he asks. ‘Why yes, we do,’ say the AA person. ‘Do you want to join?’ ‘No, I want to reshign,’ says Baptiste.”

These stories need more truth. The characters are cornered in racialism and limited in humanness; they act stupid most of the time and speak in a mock patois that is not tribal. Silas said, “Once she got footing she stand with an arm on each goal post, glare fierce from behind that mean mask what painted like a punk rock album cover.”

Ermineskin is a writer, but at times, the author intrudes and renders the voice of the narrator even more unreliable. “She thinks I should write political manifestos, whatever they are, and that I should put a lot more social commentary in my stories.”

The humor seems more honest when a character responds to the narrator and the author: “It ain't right that you get to prepare your stories in advance, Silas,” said Frank Fencepost. “I have to make mine up right there in the Welfare office.”

The characters are bound by civilization but their trouble seems to be tribal fatalism: “Me and my friend Frank Fencepost have this way of getting into trouble, no matter how hard we try to stay out of it,” said Ermineskin. “I never thought I'd say this, but I think maybe it was a mistake for Frank Fencepost to learn to read and write. Ever since he done that, it open up to him about a hundred more ways to get into trouble.”

Don Murray (review date spring 1989)

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SOURCE: Murray, Don. “Wandering Ermineskins: Kinsella's Prairie Indians Are Now Peregrine Indians.” Essays on Canadian Writing (spring 1989): 132-36.

[In the following review, Murray evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the short stories in The Fencepost Chronicles.]

The Fencepost Chronicles is the fifth of Kinsella's Indian books (Dance Me Outside, 1977; Scars, 1978; Born Indian, 1981; The Moccasin Telegraph, 1983) and the first in which the author keeps his long-standing promise to take Silas Ermineskin (the Cree storyteller), Frank Fencepost, and their friends far from the Hobbema Reserve (though Silas and Frank once visited Las Vegas). Of the thirteen stories in this new collection, eight are set in Alberta; and of these, only one is set in the atypical context of a French-Canadian town in the province—Silas's “St. Edouard [which] is way up in north-east Alberta, a place most of us never been before” (3). The Fencepost Chronicles are loosely named because they're all told by our familiar author, Silas, not by his trickster friend, Frank, and the stories don't follow in chronological order; but the dominant character is now Frank.

The change of setting in itself adds little interest to the stories, except in the case of visits to the Pacific Coast and to the Northwest Territories. “The Bear Went over the Mountain” describes how Silas and his friends, including the enormous medicine woman, Mad Etta (the “bear”), cross the Rockies so that Silas can read one of his stories at Simon Fraser University. An excursion to Wreck Beach at Vancouver gives the well-intentioned, if myopic, Greenpeace people a chance to rescue a whale that appears to be floundering on the shore. The beached mammal is, of course, Mad Etta (the transformation of bear to whale is undoubtedly within the power of medicine women), who, for some cryptic reason, wants to see the ocean before she dies, like a mountainous lemming drawn to the sea. The story is curious in tone because it wavers between rapture with British Columbia's climate, and distaste for the derelicts on its littorals and the dry husks of academics who litter the university swards and commons. Kinsella the humourist seems to battle Kinsella the escaped academic in this story.

The journey theme of the book's one baseball story, “The Managers,” is at first as promising as that of “The Bear Went over the Mountain.” In this case, Frank and Silas turn south to buy a Montana baseball team with funds that a whimsical bureaucracy has put at their disposal—a move typical of most government agencies portrayed in Kinsella's work. Kinsella's Indians know as little about baseball as any other sport, and their “Montana Indians” go into receivership, leaving Frank and Silas standing forlornly beneath a “sky big and empty, where a couple of hawks cruise, so high they look like coat-hangers in the glare” (64). How often Kinsella ends with an arresting physical image.

In “The Indian National Cultural Exchange Program,” another government grant takes the Hobbema folk from Big Sky country to the Arctic Circle. Silas, Frank, and Bedelia Coyote (the feminist who wants to name her first child “Margaret Atwood Coyote,” regardless of its sex, or so we're told in an aside of dubious humour [105]) are the three Indians given a chance to visit the Pandemonium Bay Reserve in the Northwest Territories, where they meet a people, presumably Dene, who are as tough and resourceful as Ermineskins. It's typical of the energetic Bedelia that the trip is undertaken at all; she alone knows someone in the area, a fellow social worker and “Crush the Cruise” demonstrator. Facts of the geography and climate of the place are supplied not by government leaflets, but by Mr. Nichols, Silas's counselor at the Tech School in Wetaskiwin, who reads books about Canada and could have predicted that Pandemonium's “high-rise,” with its advanced sewage system, would be a technical joke, a sort of white mammoth forever crystallized in its own effluence. Frank Fencepost (Kinsella's version of the tall tale's trickster) contributes to our knowledge of the place with his observation that the natives must worship the Skidoo since they spend so much of their time kneeling before it (109). Frank's geniality meets the general response that it's pleasant to have outsiders show such interest in native life.

The grateful hosts respond in kind. A communal spokesman explains to Silas and Frank that everyone wears a parka and mukluks because they're born wearing them: evolutionary adaptation. The visitors are surrounded by white-toothed smiles, different from the rotgut ravages—stereotypes that Kinsella insists are reality—they're used to seeing at Hobbema, so Silas knows that he's among a sturdy breed of men: “These Indians seem more like Eskimos to me. They is wide-built and not very tall with lean faces and eyes look more Japanese than Indian” (107). They are invited to join the Ammakar brothers in a caribou hunt, and this exciting event, told with precision of detail and economy of means, is the heart of the story and the highpoint of The Fencepost Chronicles.

When the hunt begins, the Ammakars split into teams, and Silas begins to learn of comradeship in the (to him) unearthly cold. After two of the great animals are brought down by Ben Ammakar's rifle, the god in the machine fails them, and they are left in a blinding ice storm with a failed Skidoo and perhaps three hours to live. The resourceful Ben tears the steaming guts of the caribou out onto the tundra and stuffs the retching Silas into the warm cavity. Silas seems to drift beyond time and human reality until a light flashes into his eye through a rift in the beast's skin, and then, with the rip of a chain saw, he is released from the now-frozen womb. The hunting brothers had found each other through a kind of psychic umbilicus, although boastful Frank tells the “story of how I brought my brothers in from the cold” (115). The communion of their lives is figured in the mandala that they form for the evening's song and “walrus milk” wassail. Silas opens his mouth more modestly than Frank:

“Thank you Mr. Caribou for saving my life today. Please forgive me for killing you so I could go on living.” After those first lines it is easy [to pray]. Almost like when people get up and give testimonials at Pastor Orkin's church back home. Ben echoes my words, so do his brothers who sit in a circle on the floor in front of us. “Thank you Mr. Caribou for giving up your life,” I sing, and as I do I raise the blood-stained arms of my parka towards the ceiling.

(116)

Silas reaches out gratefully to life as a born-again Ermineskin.

Pastor Orkin first had a story devoted to him (“The Sisters,” Born Indian) when he operated the Fundamental Baptist Church of the Fourth Dimension and, dressed in a white robe like a Klansman, stood for anti-Indian bigotry. In “Dancing,” (The Fencepost Chronicles), the minister presides at “The Church of the Open Heart,” according to the sign above the padlocked door (147), and he preaches that “God is hate,” according to Frank (144). Kinsella is most serious and most droll on the subject of “religious peoples.” Kinsella once heard a radio evangelist deliver Pastor Orkin's memorable line: “A dancing foot and a praying knee do not belong on the same leg” (146). Frank says he understands the secret of the pastor's handbook called Birth Control through Prayer: “All you got to do is hold that book between your knees and you'll never get pregnant” (148). Frank and Silas peek at the items destined for the pastor's pornography bonfire and are impressed with the catholic selection—a Lawrence Welk album (“champagne music”), cookbooks with wine recipes, even Johnny Cash records—all tossed to the flames like infected frisbees (150, 149). The last laugh is not Pastor Orkin's, however, for the Indian trickster is still at large: when the pastor plays the record he has removed from the “Great Hymns of the Western World” jacket, his congregation hears Johnny Paycheck's “Take This Job and Shove It!” (152).

The final story in The Fencepost Chronicles, the muted and nostalgic “Indian Joe,” takes us back in time to a Christmas party at the Blue Quills Hall, when Silas's sister, Illianna, receives a mechanical Indian from the white man who plays Santa Claus that day. The party takes place a few years before Illianna moves from Hobbema to Calgary and marries the white Robert McGregor McVey, a credit company executive. “Brother Bob” is a Santa Claus, too, who gives Illianna first-class citizenship in the suburbs. When the story shifts to the present time, Silas and Frank are visiting Calgary for a day and they call at Bob's office, where Frank tries to beguile the receptionist for a loan: “he look at her real sad, lift up one finger point to his cheek. As he does a tear squeeze out of his eye, roll onto his cheek and stop there. Frank seen an Indian on TV do that, that Indian was sad about white men cutting down trees or something” (183). Thus Frank is like the image of an Indian, a kind of doll, though not a mechanically clever doll. In the white man's office, Frank plays the fool with the computing machines—he's no match for artificial intelligences—until Frank and Silas are thrown out. Eventually, Silas visits Illianna to explain the ruckus and say goodbye. As they reminisce briefly, Silas notices that she is holding old “Indian Joe,” the doll from that distant Christmas, and for a moment he's not sure which Indian is making a sound. Then he sees real tears “flood out of her big, brown eyes,” not Frank's mock tears, nor the TV Indian's, nor the steadfast Indian Joe's.

For Illianna I bet it's one of those times when the past seems so far away—so permanently lost. I've had the feeling myself, a terrible sense of loss, like someone important has died. But then there's the worse feeling of not being able to name the person who'd died. It's a little like looking at your own grave.

(189)

This is the death of the self, the family, the people. It is also the memory of the self, the loved ones, the people, kept from oblivion in the pages of Silas's Ermineskin chronicles.

Brian Aitken (essay date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: Aitken, Brian. “Baseball as Sacred Doorway in the Writing of W. P. Kinsella.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 8, no. 1 (fall 1990): 61-75.

[In the following essay, Aitken examines the various allusions to religion in Kinsella's writing.]

Ninety feet between bases is the nearest to perfection that man has yet achieved.

(Red Smith)

Two years ago at the Canadian Learneds at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, I gave a paper entitled “The Emergence of Born-Again Sport” in which I examined Athletes-In-Action, one of the Evangelical Christian organizations catering to professional and elite amateur athletes. I ended the paper with a brief discussion of the relationship between religion and sport and in the process identified three positions. First, sport and religion can be viewed as being totally different realities; for philosopher Robert J. Higgs sport belongs to the world of the beautiful and play, whereas religion by nature belongs to the holy and the spiritual.1 A second position, clearly articulated by theologian Michael Novak, claims that sport is religion-like: “It flows from a deep natural impulse that is radically religious.”2 But for Novak the religiosity of sport is somehow inferior to the religiosity experienced in an organized religion like Christianity. A third position suggests that sport can be a form of religion in every sense of the term. Charles Prebisch, a Religious Studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has adopted this position. For Prebisch, on occasion, and under the right circumstances, sport can bring its advocates to an experience of the ultimate.3 In my paper I agreed with Prebisch, although I felt somewhat vulnerable in doing so.4 Subsequently, I discovered the writings of W. P. Kinsella on baseball, and these have helped me to explore more methodically how sport can be a doorway to the sacred.

Who is W. P. Kinsella? At the moment Kinsella is rapidly becoming Canada's most popular writer of fiction. Over the past ten years he has published nine collections of short stories and two widely acclaimed novels, Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. In spite of his productiveness he remains outside the Canadian literary establishment, partly because he writes about Indians and baseball, but mainly because Bill Kinsella relishes being anti-establishment. Kinsella has won many awards, including the Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Canadian Author's Prize for Fiction, and in 1987, the prestigious Leacock Medal for humour. A testimony to the respect and interest that Kinsella has engendered is a recent scholarly critique of his fiction by University of Saskatchewan English professor Donald Murray, The Fiction of W. P. Kinsella: Tall Tales in Various Voices.5 And Field of Dreams, a Hollywood-produced film based on an adaptation of his novel Shoeless Joe, has drawn rave reviews.

Kinsella's rise to fame has not been sudden or easy. Born and raised near Edmonton, Kinsella dropped out of school at age 17 and spent almost two decades in a variety of non-descript occupations such as cab driver, claims' investigator and pizza parlour proprietor. The financial success of this last endeavour enabled him to pursue his life-long dream of becoming a writer. In 1970 at age 35 he enrolled in the University of Victoria's creative writing program. He graduated in 1974 and two years later was accepted into the University of Iowa's prestigious MFA program in creative writing. In 1978, with degree in hand and a new wife, his third, Kinsella accepted a teaching position at the University of Calgary. For Kinsella this was not a good experience. He loathed academia, calling the University of Calgary “Desolate U.” and his first-year remedial English classes “Bonehead English.” In 1982, with the publication of Shoeless Joe, Kinsella finally had the economic security to write full time, so he moved to White Rock, B.C., thirty miles south of Vancouver on the American border, a place he claims has the warmest climate in Canada. From White Rock he has maintained a rigorous work schedule, publishing one or two works a year. For leisure, he and his wife Annie travel the Major League Baseball circuit in their beat-up Nissan pick-up.

In general Kinsella's writing reflects many Canadian concerns. Like George Grant, Kinsella is horrified by the effects that our technocratic society, burgeoning like an octopus, is having on individuals. Writes literary critic Elspeth Cameron: “Evil, according to Kinsella, lies in the institutions that run our lives: organized religion, banks, bureaucracies, military service, schools.”6 Kinsella's books of Indian stories—Dance Me Outside, The Moccasin Telegraph and The Fencepost Chronicles—acutely portray the destructiveness of the white, technocratic culture that dominates North America. What Kinsella prefers is the gentle rural life where people have time for themselves, for others and for pastimes like baseball. This perhaps explains his love of Iowa, which remains the quintessential farm-based culture in North America. Ray Kinsella, the central character in Shoeless Joe, rhapsodizes about the benefits of rural Iowa over the big city:

I came to Iowa to study, one of thousands of faceless students who pass through large universities, but I fell in love with the state. Fell in love with the land, the people, the sky, the cornfields, and Annie. …

For years I bathed each morning, frosted my cheeks with Aqua Velva, donned a three piece suit and a snap brim hat, and, feeling like Superman emerging from a telephone booth, set forth to save the world from a lack of life insurance. I loathed the job so much that I did it quickly, urgently, almost violently. It was Annie who got me to rent the farm. It was Annie who got me to buy it.7

Kinsella is well aware of the dark forces present in our technological society, but he is no cynic. All his characters reflect a naive optimism that we are not totally powerless, that the tragedy of life can be transcended.

Kinsella has had a passion for baseball since an early age. His father was a semi-pro ball player who was full of baseball tales and took young Bill to see minor league professional games in Edmonton. However, Kinsella confesses that he was never much of a baseball player himself. In fact, he claims that baseball is the only sport he likes and patronizes. As he says in an interview with Donald Murray:

I myself am not an outdoors person; I'm not a hiker or a swimmer or a camper. You couldn't pay me enough money to camp—I like motels—if I don't have a hot shower in the morning I'm mean and ornery for the whole day. The only outdoors I really like is the baseball stadium.8

What is it about baseball that Kinsella finds so appealing? He continually stresses that he simply wants to tell a good story; his purpose, he says, is to entertain and to stimulate the imagination of the reader. However, he does recognize that “for those who prefer to seek below the surface for meaning, there are symbols, ironies, Biblical and mythological tales retold.”9 In the Murray interview Kinsella specified the deeper meaning of his baseball stories:

Well, I think we do need heroes, and there is a terrible lack of heroes … baseball, if not individually, then at least collectively provides the hero. The players become larger than life because the baseball field is not enclosed, as are the football field and the basketball court. Baseball, while the stadiums do have fences, still retains a mythic proportion since the game has a sort of infinite dimension: there's no distance that the slugger cannot theoretically surpass, that the fielder cannot theoretically cover—almost with enough agility and cunning. I seems to me that baseball is the hero that we worship rather than the individual players who make up the game.10

It is, then, the mythical element in Kinsella's baseball stories that conveys his religious vision and offers some insight into how sport can be a doorway to the sacred. To break open his religious vision I would like to appeal to the work of the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell. In his ground-breaking work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell identifies what he calls a monomyth, a paradigm of myth that is repeated over and over again in a thousand faces and a thousand contexts. This monomyth involves a sequence of three phases—departure, initiation and return. To quote Campbell:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men.11

As Campbell himself notes, this paradigm originated with the prior work of Arnold Van Gennep, the great Flemish anthropologist. Van Gennep was the first researcher to note the centrality of rites of passage amongst the practices of all traditional peoples. For Van Gennep rites of passage such as birth, initiation, marriage and death always follow a sequence of rites of separation, rites of liminality (learning) and rites of reincorporation. In traditional cultures rites of passage enabled people to move successfully from one stage of their life to another.12 For Campbell myth precedes ritual; the story of the hero is what ritual attempts to replicate. The monomyth Campbell identifies is for him a paradigm for all spiritual transformation and is therefore the basis for all organized expressions of religion. Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, the Prophet, all underwent the journey of the legendary hero and their challenge to their devotees is to follow the same path.

But this monomyth underlies the process of fundamental change in all other areas of life. Campbell refers to Arnold Toynbee's theory of world history which suggests that great societies are created or re-created only when a large body of their citizenry has undergone a profound spiritual transition which leads to a new vision of society.13 (This is perhaps what is happening in China today.) The monomyth can also be found at the heart of progress in scientific thought. As Thomas Kuhn has pointed out in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the modern world came into being only after scientists accepted the validity of the Copernican view of the universe and in the process discarded the old Ptolemaic view. For many this transition involved a painful intellectual journey.14

Campbell's monomyth can be clearly seen in the writings of W. P. Kinsella. When his three-phase monomyth is broken down into smaller stages and applied to Kinsella's writings, it can help us to see how baseball can be a source of personal transformation of how sport in general can be a sacred doorway.

DEPARTURE

1. OPENNESS TO ADVENTURE

For Campbell the legendary hero is always an adventurer at heart. He has the ability to wonder and to dream. And he has the courage to follow his dream. All of Kinsella's heroes exhibit an openness to adventure. As Gideon Clarke puts it in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy: “There are some of us who see and hear more than they were meant to. My father was one of those, as I am.”15

2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE

According to Campbell the hero does not decide himself to embark on an adventure. Always he has a sense of being called by the gods or by fate to go off on a journey. The hero, furthermore, never knows what the final outcome of the adventure will be, although he will have his hopes. What he does know is that the journey is important and that he alone can take it. In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy Gideon inherits his father's obsession to prove to the world, in spite of the absence of any historical records to the contrary, that the 1907 World Series champions Chicago Cubs had actually played a team of amateur baseball All-Stars known as the Iowa Baseball Confederacy in his hometown of Onamata Iowa (known back then as Big Inning) in the summer of 1908. In his earlier novel Shoeless Joe, the call to hero Ray Kinsella is more direct:

Three years ago at dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robin's egg blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick, I was sitting on the veranda of my farm home in eastern Iowa, when a voice clearly said to me, “If you build it, he will come.”16

The voice is that of a baseball park announcer; the “it” to be built is a baseball field in the corn acreage in front of Ray's house; and the “he” who will come is Shoeless Joe Jackson—a childhood hero of Ray's father. Jackson was the star outfielder of the Chicago White Sox in 1919 when they lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Red Legs. A year later Jackson and seven of his teammates were suspended for life by Commissioner Kenesaw Landis for having taken bribes from Chicago gamblers to throw the World Series.

3. THE STRUGGLE TO DEPART

Campbell stresses that departure from the ordinary world is often a painful process for the legendary hero. For work, friends, family and social status all have to be left behind to pursue the deep sea journey to a higher realm of truth and transformation. Ray Kinsella and Gideon Clarke, the heroes in Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy are able to drop what they are doing in the ordinary world to pursue their fantasy, but other central characters find it particularly difficult to leave the security of the routines that characterize life in the ordinary world. This is particularly true of J. D. Salinger in Shoeless Joe. Yes, Kinsella makes J. D. Salinger a character in his novel. Ray Kinsella is told by the ghost announcer to “Ease his pain”; Ray knows intuitively that this order refers to author Salinger. Ray knows that Salinger has not written anything since 1965 and that he has been living as a recluse in upstate New Hampshire. So Ray travels to Salinger's retreat in his beat-up Nissan pick-up, kidnaps the author and takes him to a baseball game in Boston's Fenway Park between the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. Years before Ray had read in an interview with Salinger in an obscure literary magazine that Salinger had been a devout baseball fan. Apparently his boyhood dream had been to play short-stop for the New York Giants, but he had been so devastated when the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, and when the Polo Grounds were later demolished in 1964, that he gave up his enthusiasm for baseball and had not attended a game since. During the drive to Boston Ray tells Salinger about the baseball field on his farm in Iowa and about the presence of the 1918 White Sox. Salinger says he admires Ray's craziness, but continually asks him: “Are you sure you're not under psychiatric care?”17 Salinger continues to claim that he is happy with his life the way it is because he cherishes privacy. But it is obvious that he is depressed by his aging and so has lost all enthusiasm for living. He is stuck in his boredom and anger, and at this point is not able to respond to Ray's call to adventure.

4. CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD

According to Campbell, in order for the hero to cross the first threshold, he must believe that the adventure will lead to a positive climax. So he must take a leap of faith, and in taking that leap, a substantial change has already occurred. At the ball game in Fenway Park Ray shouts at Jerry, hoping to shake him out of his imprisonment to the past:

Open your eyes. I've come fifteen hundred miles to drag you to a baseball game. Stretch the skin back from your eyes. Take in everything. Look at Yaz there in the on-deck circle. Look at the angle he holds the bat. There isn't another player in the Majors can duplicate that stance. Look at the left field fence, half as high as the sky. The Green Monster … Watch the players, white against green, like froth on the waves of the ocean. Look around at the fans, count their warts, just as they count ours, look at them stuff their faces and cheer with their mouths full. We're not just ordinary people, we're a congregation. Baseball is a ceremony, a ritual as surely as sacrificing a goat beneath a full moon is ritual.18

At home after the game, Salinger cannot bring himself to say goodbye to Ray. The game has sewn a seed of renewal in him. He can now see what Ray can see and hear, including the scoreboard message “Go the distance.” So Jerry hops back into Ray's truck and they head for Chisholm, Minnesota, to find Moonlight Graham—a former ball player who appeared in only one game in the Majors. Salinger is now part of the adventure.

INITIATION

5. THE FIELD OF DREAMS

According to Campbell, when the hero is safely through the first threshold, he enters a dream-like landscape similar to the surrealist painting of Salvador Dali. Nothing is quite the same as in everyday life; there are strange creatures, objects with human characteristics and mysterious forces that constantly endanger the adventurer. In spite of the confusion and danger, however, the hero is mesmerized by the task at hand. In a short story entitled “Frank Pierce, Iowa,” Kinsella introduces readers to this surrealist, dream-like realm. Frank Pierce is a small Iowa farming village named after a former president of the United States. On a sunny afternoon in mid-August in 1901, all its inhabitants and buildings disappear from the face of the earth without any record of their former existence except in the folklore of the region. Ezra Dean, one of the former inhabitants foresaw this in a dream. He says to a friend as they stand at the edge of the town's baseball field:

Think of it, Jim. We'll be free of the weight that binds us to the earth. We'll soar like the wind, like the leaves of autumn; we'll soar like music. Instead of being the baseball players, we'll be the ball, the bat, the bases. Adventures like we've never known … I rode with Teddy Roosevelt in … what was the year? It will be greater that.19

6. ORDEAL BY FIRE

For Campbell the hero is constantly being tested in the initiation phase. And it is more and more evident that it is not just his own future that hangs in the balance, but the future of everything else. In Kinsella's stories it is the game per se that is the ordeal. The games always involve teams that are very even in talent, even though that might not be the case at the outset. So the competition is always intense and the outcome never certain. In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy the teams are so even that the game goes on for forty days and 2650 innings. And throughout the duration of this epic game, the playing conditions are impossible; rain all the time and a flood that threatens to drown the town of Big Inning and the baseball field itself. As well, the game has cosmic implications, for lurking behind the scene is the gigantic Indian, Drifting Away, who eventually tells Gideon Clarke that it is he who is helping the Confederacy All-Stars to stay competitive with the superior Chicago Cubs. For Drifting Away a victory by the All-Stars will be victory for all Native peoples in North America and will redress some of the wrong done to the Indians by the white man. But a victory for the All-Stars will also be a victory for Drifting Away personally. For long ago his young bride Onamata was murdered because of his negligence; consequently, the grandfathers (elders) consigned him to a life of drifting until the right occasion came along to vindicate himself. For Drifting Away the epic baseball game is the critical opportunity. Drifting Away makes it clear that baseball is the only thing that the white man has done right; for baseball has circles and not just squares and therefore is close to nature. Says Drifting Away:

Think of the circles instead of the lines … the ball, the circumference of the bat, the outfield running to the circle of the horizon, the batter running around the bases. Baseball is as close to the circle of perfection as white are allowed to the approach.20

For Drifting Away, baseball is a metaphor for the ultimate nature of things. The game ritualizes a fundamental cosmic struggle. Victory in the game will not only restore Onamata to Drifting Away, hence bestowing on him peace and completeness, but it will also bring harmony and tranquility to the cosmos.

7. THE MEETING WITH THE GODDESS

The struggle, according to Campbell, does eventually bring its rewards. One of these is the meeting with the goddess who represents the navel of reality and therefore the source of life and energy. So in meeting the Goddess, the hero is re-energized, protected and taught compassion. For Kinsella the goddess is the land, and specifically the land of Iowa. It is this verdant farmland that nourishes the soul. And when baseball is played on this land, the way it should be played, under the blue skies with wooden bleachers and old-time hot dogs, magic occurs. The players and spectators feel liberated from life's pressures and are given a sense of rebirth. As Ray says to Jerry after watching some outstanding fielding in the Twins-Red Sox game at Fenway Park:

The play re-affirms what I already know … that baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true, pure, precious as the diamonds. If only life were so simple … I feel as if I've escaped my skin, as if I left a dry shell of myself back in Iowa. My skin is so new and pink, and it feels raw to my touch, it's as if I peeled off a blister that covered my whole body. Within the baselines anything can happen; tides can reverse, oceans can open. That's why they say, “The game is never over, until the last man is out.” Colors can change, lives can alter, anything is possible in this gentle, flawless, loving game.21

8. AT-ONE-MENT WITH THE FATHER

In the adventure, according to Campbell, the hero is eventually brought face to face with the Father, who represents truth or at least a full vision of truth. The hero now recognizes that all the testing has been administered by the father so as to test his manliness. Once these trials have been mastered, the hero shares his father's vision and is treated as an equal by the father.

In both of Kinsella's baseball novels the father-figure dominates the plot. In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, Gideon attempts to validate his father's claim about the existence of the Iowa Baseball Confederacy and the game between its All-Stars and the Chicago Cubs in 1908. In Shoeless Joe Ray's love for and knowledge of the game has been nurtured by his father, Johnny, a former minor league player. Johnny had contended to Ray that Shoeless Joe and the other seven players were really innocent victims of big-time gamblers. So Ray also has something to prove. Both fathers, Johnny Kinsella and Frank Clarke, die young, while their sons are in their teens. So the adventure ultimately leads to a reunion with their fathers. When Gideon and Ray have successfully met the test, when they have proved the existence of the phantom baseball league and the innocence of Shoeless Joe, then they are allowed to share their father's vision, which is that baseball is the nearest thing to perfection. Gideon relates the fathers' vision:

Why not baseball? My father would say, name a more perfect game with more possibilities for magic, wizardry, voodoo, hoodoo, enchantment, obsession. There's always time for day-dreaming, time to create your own illusions at the ballpark. I'll bet that there isn't a magician anywhere who doesn't love baseball. Take the layout. No mere mortal could have dreamed up the dimensions of a baseball field. No man could be that perfect. Abner Doubleday, if indeed he did invent the game, must have received divine guidance.22

9. APOTHEOSIS

For Campbell, the hero who has been successfully initiated into the vision or the lore of the father is immediately given divine status and consequently enjoys a deep sense of bliss. What had not been complete before the adventure is now complete. The participants in Kinsella's baseball stories all become divine-like because they have had the opportunity to realize their dreams—to play in the Major Leagues successfully, and to play the game as it should be played, with keen competition and a freedom from everyday worries that normally lessen the pleasure of the game. Ultimately, all the players are lifted up to a different plane where they “feel free, unfettered and divine.” Stan, Gideon's co-adventurer in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, who had been a journeyman pro for twelve years, finally makes it to the big leagues, maintains a batting average over.300 and fields with great aplomb. Moonlight Graham, whom Ray has been called to bring to the baseball park on his farm, is given the chance to play with the White Sox and he too plays well. Both have found their heaven.

10. RECEIVING THE BOON

The culmination of this part of the adventure, according to Campbell, is that the hero receives a boon or divine gift, which entails the ability to share his vision with others. For Kinsella the boon is the unfettered love of baseball. So the adventurer-player is called to preach the good news of baseball. In Shoeless Joe Eddie Kid Scissons, whose life-long claims about having been a major leaguer are finally vindicated in Ray's ball field, in thankfulness goes up into the bleachers and preaches to all those present from many lifetimes:

I've read the word: I've played it, it is there. When you speak there's going to be a change in those around you. That is the living word of baseball … As I look at you, I know that there are men among you who are troubled, anxious, worried, insecure. What is the cure? Is it to be found in doctors, pills, medicine? No. The answer is in the word, and baseball is the word. We must tell everyone we meet the true meaning of the term baseball, and if we do, those we speak to will be changed by the power of that living word.23

THE RETURN

11. THE REFUSAL TO RETURN

Campbell stresses that the hero must return to the real world or else the adventure ends. But the rapture of the ideal baseball games sometimes makes the hero reluctant to return. Ray in Shoeless Joe and Gideon and Stan in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy are all reluctant to return. Stan has done so well playing against the Cubs that their manager offers him a big league contract. Gideon has fallen in love with a local farm girl, Sarah Swan, who gives him the love and loyalty his wife Sunny has never given him. And Ray shows his reluctance by being jealous of J. D. Salinger who has been invited by Shoeless Joe to go beyond the fence after the game. He doesn't want to be left alone on his farm apart from his dream.

12. THE LAST THRESHOLD

For the last threshold to be negotiated successfully with a minimum of pain, the hero has to accept its finality. As Campbell stresses, the hero must accept the fact he cannot return to the idyllic world he has just experienced. Furthermore, according to Campbell, the hero now recognizes that his journey in another world has also in some sense been an adventure into himself. And what the hero has learned was always there to learn, but he did not have the ability or willingness to see this inner truth. Stan, Gideon's cohort in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, recognizes this. As they talk about returning, Gideon asks, “What about you?” Stan replies:

No, I have been what I always wanted to be. I'd have sold my soul to have been a major league ball player. I'd have done it, Gid. Chance offered me a contract. He says I could be a great hitter. Think about that … the terror of the league. A star … but I'm not going to do it. Gloria [Stan's wife] should have thrown me back in the lake years ago.24

Stan now recognizes that his life has been as it should have been, and that it has been much more satisfying than he would have admitted before the baseball adventure. So he is now ready to get on with his life with a new appreciation of its worth.

13. REINCORPORATION

Campbell emphasizes that the hero must be reincorporated into ordinary life or no one will be able to hear his message. All of Kinsella's heroes are made to resume their ordinary lives. Gideon Clarke has to face the departure of Sunny from his life and the death of his adopted father, John Baron. Later, with the death of Marlyle Baron, he assumes responsibility for their middle-aged Down's Syndrome child, Missy. And Ray, in Shoeless Joe, has to return to the life of a corn farmer and somehow prevent the foreclosure of his farm. For all of Kinsella's heroes, reincorporation is painful, like coming back to work from a great summer vacation. But if they accept this necessity, Kinsella makes it clear that the experience of the adventure will linger on and continually reenergize their spirit. At the end of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, Gideon is walking with Missy along the road to town. They meet an Indian couple; the man is obviously a reincarnation or Drifting Away. Gideon can tell by the eyes. The woman is probably Onamata, meaning that they have been reunited, a symbol as well that all is now in harmony in the cosmos. Gideon says to the Indian, “You made it. Are you happy?” Drifting Away responds, “Sure we're happy, the old lady and me, gonna meet her brother in Onamata.” Gideon continues, “Haven't I seen you play baseball?” Drifting Away answers, “I haven't played in years and years. I only pinch hit one time.” So Gideon discovers back in ordinary life that his adventure was real and that it can never be taken away from him. He takes Missy's hand and continues down the road, saying to himself, “I'm so happy, I think I might explode.”25

14. SHARING THE BOON

For Campbell the hero must be ordinary, but not too ordinary. His charisma needs to shine forth so that people might be moved towards a similar spiritual journey. In short, the boon must be shared or shown. In Shoeless Joe J. D. Salinger promises Ray he'll write about their adventure when he returns to ordinary life. And Gideon, in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, says to Drifting Away that he'll see him again at the ball park, but this time he'll bring the Baseball Encyclopedia, the Bible of baseball. But it is in a more recent short story entitled “K-Mart” that Kinsella provides a clear image of how compelling the evangel of baseball can be.

The story involves three teenage male friends who have gone on to great success in adult life. They have not seen each other in twenty years, but they have met again at the funeral of a mutual female friend in their home town. After the funeral they reminisce about old times and especially about their endless baseball games. Their love of the game is quickly rekindled, so they decide to drive to the old ball park and play some baseball. Unfortunately, it is covered by a new K-Mart. Undaunted, they go inside and figure out where home plate, the pitcher's mound and center field were. Then they go to the sports section and help themselves to some ball, bats and mitts. After this, it's “Play Ball!”:

“Hit me a good one, Flash,” I held the bat high, gripped tight at the end. I held it straight up and down, peeking over the crook of my left elbow. Kaz pawed the cheap white tiles where the mound used to be. Far back in left Eddie drifted among the sofas and love seats. “Burn it there, Kaz,” he hollered, shielding his eyes with the glove, blocking out the glare of the imaginary sun. A few people were staring at us, warily, as they passed in nearby aisles. I wiggled the end of the bat and waited. As I did, the whiter light of K-Mart became the sunshine. The store lifted away from us like a bell-jar. The other players took their places on the field: tall slim Ted Troy at first base, Peppy Goselin at shortstop, Pudge Green in center field. As the players took shape, the racks of pink and blue dresses, the women's and children's clothes, fresh as sunshine, smelling of ironing and starch, rose like the mist. The grass was emerald green, measled with dandelions.

“Burn it in there,” Eddie shouted … There were two pinging sounds like a doorbell. Security to Section 12, Security to Section 12, said a female voice … Kaz wound up his thick arm and hamlike hand with grease-stained knuckles and snapped the ball toward me. … The ball was one laser of white connecting Kaz's hand with my bat. In the hairs-breath of a second between the crack of the bat and the ball exploding into the sun above the outfield, I relished the terrible joy of hitting it square on.26

What, then, do Kinsella's musings about baseball tell us about the religiosity of sport? Campbell's monomyth applied to Kinsella's baseball stories shows that sport always has the potential to be a rite of passage for both the player and spectator. Certainly from ancient times to the present, sport has served as a way of testing the maturity of a young boy seeking admittance into adulthood. However, this is not the kind of rite of passage I am discussing here. My observation is that in the world of W. P. Kinsella, sport has the potential to lift the player and the spectator from the ordinary world to an extraordinary sacred world, and that the result of the apotheosis is always renewal or rebirth. In response to my concern outlined at the beginning of the paper, Kinsella appears to be suggesting that baseball or sport does not just offer experiences which are religion-like; rather, sport or baseball has the potential inherent in its nature to bestow experiences which are essentially religious, which are every bit as valid and real as those experiences one enjoys occasionally in organized religion.

If I am right about the religiosity of sport, or even partially right, then I think Kinsella's writings on baseball are an indictment of what sport has become in Canada in 1989, as typified by the world of Ben Johnson. The contrast between the two is striking. In Kinsella's world sport is always played for fun or as an end in itself; competing matters more than winning, and the players are not out to obliterate their opponents, but rather respect them and enjoy their camaraderie. Above all, Kinsella's players can play at their play because they have a sort of naive faith and trust in the ultimate goodness of things. So they have no trouble leaving behind everyday responsibilities without too much guilt or worry. The world of Ben Johnson, however, shows the darker side of sport. In this world, winning is everything, and if drugs, cheating or making oneself into a robot by years of trying to emulate the machine are needed to be Number One and to obliterate an opponent, then so be it. In the world of Ben Johnson, there is no faith or trust, so the purpose of sport is to gain as much power, wealth, and therefore as much security as possible. Such a world cannot really let go, let down its guard and play and have fun. Nor can anything be accepted as a gift. What the world of Ben Johnson has forgotten is Luther's warnings about salvation by works.

Kinsella's baseball stories also indict organized religion. Organized religion in pluralistic North America is still resolutely parochial. Today, in the mainline Christian churches that most of us belong to, we do grudgingly grant that God might be present with our Anglican, Roman Catholic and Baptist brothers and sisters, but not as perfectly as he is in our own denomination. And I even think that in most of our churches there is a growing minority that would concede that Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Bahai's and Native Animists might have some sort of pipe-line to the deity, even if it is less direct than our own. However, when it comes to seeing the sacred, present in so-called secular experiences, we have much more trouble. The only exception here would be work. Work is still a form of Godliness for Canadians, and so when it is threatened in any way, bishops, church leaders and TV evangelists spout fire on governments as if they were reincarnations of the eighth century Old Testament prophets. However, when sport or leisure is prostituted, there is hardly a whimper. There has been no bishop's statement about the Dubin Enquiry, nor has their been any outcry from church circles about the recent revelation in a cover article in Time magazine to the effect that we have ten fewer hours of leisure than we did twenty years ago, and that this lack of leisure is having destructive results on the stability of the family and our own individual well-being.

Kinsella's ideas about baseball, and therefore sport, challenge organized religions in North America to look more seriously at the tendency to compart-mentalize the spiritual journey. These stories challenge organized religions to take more seriously the claim of increasing numbers of North Americans that they are finding fulfillment, even spiritual transformation in mundane activities such as baseball. Perhaps the character Annie Savoy in the film Bull Durham has put this more directly:

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Vishnu, Shiva, Tree Mushrooms, Isadore Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that I gave Jesus a chance, but it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring, which makes it like sex. … I've tried’em all, I really have. And the only Church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out is the Church of Baseball.27

Notes

  1. Robert J. Higgs, “Muscular Christianity, Holy Play and Spiritual Exercises: Confusion about Christ in Sports and Religion,” Journal of Sport Literature (Fall 1983).

  2. Michael J. Novak, The Joy of Sport (New York: Basic Basics, 1976).

  3. Charles Prebisch, “Heavenly Father, Divine Goalie: Sport and Religion,” The Antioch Review (Summer 1984).

  4. Brian Aitken, “The Emergence of Born-Again Sport,” Canadian Studies in Religion (Fall 1989).

  5. Donald Murray, The Fiction of W. P. Kinsella: Tall Tales in Various Voices (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Press, 1987).

  6. Elspeth Cameron, “Diamonds are Forever,” Saturday Night (August 1986), 46.

  7. W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982), 9.

  8. Donald Murray, “Interview with W. P. Kinsella,” West Coast Review (April 1986), 63.

  9. Murray, “Interview,” 61.

  10. Murray, “Interview,” 65-66.

  11. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949), 36.

  12. Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

  13. Campbell, “Hero,” 17.

  14. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

  15. W. P. Kinsella, “Frank Pierce, Iowa,” The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988), 71.

  16. Kinsella, “Shoeless,” 3.

  17. Kinsella, “Shoeless,” 53.

  18. Kinsella, “Shoeless,” 71.

  19. W. P. Kinsella, “Frank Pierce, Iowa,” The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988), 71.

  20. Kinsella, “Iowa,” 177-178.

  21. Kinsella, “Iowa,” 78.

  22. Kinsella, “Iowa,” 44.

  23. Kinsella, “Shoeless,” 192-193.

  24. Kinsella, “Iowa,” 292.

  25. Kinsella, “Iowa,” 308-309.

  26. W. P. Kinsella, “K-Mart,” The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988), 71.

  27. Orion Pictures, (1988).

Don G. Campbell (review date 18 November 1990)

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SOURCE: Campbell, Don G. Review of Red Wolf, Red Wolf, by W. P. Kinsella. Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 November 1990): 6.

[In the following review, Campbell offers a positive assessment of Red Wolf, Red Wolf.]

While W. P. Kinsella has written 15 books and more than 200 short stories, he is undoubtedly best known for his prize-winning novel, Shoeless Joe, which, in turn, became the mystic movie, Field of Dreams. In Red Wolf, Red Wolf, Kinsella's collection of 13 short stories, first published in Canada in 1987, we have a well-balanced cross section of the author's skills in shaping believable people moving against ordinary backgrounds and behaving sometimes self-destructively, sometimes foolishly, but always 100٪ believably. Kinsella's protagonists aren't always likable and certainly can be as foolish as the best of us. In “Evangeline's Mother,” Henry Vold, an otherwise promising savings-and-loan executive plays the fool's role to perfection when he scuttles both his marriage and career in becoming involved with the sexually precocious friend of his own teenage daughter. Critics label Kinsella's style as being from the “slice of life” school. It makes it sound too easy. Knowing how deeply, and at what angle, to slice is the trick as the author proves convincingly in this admirable collection.

J. K. (review date January 1991)

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SOURCE: J. K. Review of Red Wolf, Red Wolf, by W. P. Kinsella. West Coast Review of Books 16 (January 1991): 21.

[In the following review, the critic praises Kinsella's storytelling abilities and provides several plot synopses of the stories in Red Wolf, Red Wolf.]

If you've never had the pleasure of reading anything by W. P. Kinsella, don't blow your chance now. A bona-fide baseball nut, Kinsella uses not only his love for the Great American Pastime but his love of America, its history and folklore, in establishing himself as Bard First Class. Red Wolf, Red Wolf, a unique collection of short stories, does nothing to threaten this well-earned title.

Kinsella uses the book's foreword to acknowledge a debt to Baba Drobney, his Yugoslavian grandmother, from whom he inherited his love of storytelling. His own specialty entails adapting the lives of real people out of history for use in his stories. Such was the origin of the novel Shoeless Joe, which became the hit movie Field of Dreams in 1988.

Kinsella breathes life into a few other dead heroes in this collection: Billy the Kid and one of his favorite authors, the late Flannery O'Connor. In “Billy in Trinidad” Kinsella gushes with sentiment as the narrator, a friend of the Kid, speaks from the heart about Billy's inherent sense of good—often alluded to in history but not taken seriously; Billy was a killer. Our narrator—thrilled yet uncomfortable about his relationship with the infamous gunslinger—relates how the Kid, within a span of days, offers to murder four men on his friend's behalf; he then befriends a nun, an orphan and a lame deer.

Kinsella gives us Flannery O'Connor in the title story. (The term “Red Wolf, Red Wolf” was coined by O'Connor as a description of the disease, lupus, which eventually took her life.) In this story, Kinsella reawakens one of O'Connor's fictional characters, Enoch Emory, who surprises Flannery at her doorstep one day. The crux of this story, at least from Enoch's point of view, is, “Well, Miss Flannery, you created me. Now what?”

Others of Kinsella's stories are decidedly more grim. “Evangeline's Mother” is about a young man who is seduced by his teenage daughter's best friend. “Oh, Marley” is a bizarre, disturbing look at a man's budding relationship with a severely overweight young woman. At 300 pounds, the woman has survived a brutal stabbing—her layers of body fat protecting her from certain death. This, the author admits, was plucked straight from the pages of a notorious national tabloid. With that to go on, Kinsella rewove the strange plight of the unknown woman into a startling piece of short fiction.

Underlying many of these stories, of course, is the theme of baseball. Several of the characters are ballplayers, and even Billy the Kid plays a game. But the stories are tied together by the fact that every one of them involves an irrevocable interruption of someone's life by a mysterious stranger … or perhaps not so mysterious in the case of “Elvis Bound,” where the unwanted visitor is a life-size poster of Elvis Presley taped above a married couple's bed. This “knocks-at-the-door-a-stranger” theme was snatched by Kinsella from his folksy grandma. And were she here to read his stories, Baba Drobney would be proud.

Robert Hamblin (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Hamblin, Robert. “‘Magic Realism,’ or, The Split-Fingered Fastball of W. P. Kinsella.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 9, no. 2 (spring 1992): 1-10.

[In the following essay, Hamblin examines the elements of “magic realism” present in Kinsella's works.]

As Robert Francis's well-known poem, “Pitcher,” persuades us, the actions and intentions of a baseball pitcher and a writer are remarkably analogous, since both employ indirection, subtlety, deception, and suspense to achieve their desired effects. That being the case, it seems appropriate to develop the subject of this paper, the intertwining of fact and fantasy in W. P. Kinsella's baseball fiction, through the use of a pitching metaphor. As I hope to demonstrate, Kinsella as author is a master of a variety of deliveries, or “pitches.”

Undoubtedly the characteristic of Kinsella's stories that initially impresses a reader is his celebration of the power of creative invention, or (to use the current critical term) “fabulation.” In Kinsella's fictional world, it would appear, nothing is impossible; whatever the human imagination is capable of conceiving is considered appropriate subject matter for fiction. His two baseball novels demonstrate this point. In Shoeless Joe an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella hears an anonymous voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come” (3). The it is understood to be a baseball field in the middle of his corn acreage, and the he is Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest players who ever lived and one of the eight Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for life for their alleged conspiracy with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. After the field is constructed and the ghost of Jackson appears to play his beloved game once more, bringing with him the other players ruined by the Black Sox Scandal, Ray hears the voice again, this time saying, “Ease his pain” (27). Instinctively knowing that the reference in this case is to the most famous recluse on the contemporary literary scene, J. D. Salinger, Ray travels to Vermont, kidnaps Salinger, takes him to a game in Boston's Fenway Park, and then convinces the writer to accompany him back to Iowa. On the road the pair pick up a young hitchhiker, the resurrected Moonlight Graham, a former baseball player whose major league experience was limited to only one inning in the field without a single at-bat for the 1905 New York Giants. The novel culminates back in Iowa with a baseball game in which both Graham and Ray's dead father, Johnny, realize their dream of playing with some of baseball's greatest players.

The plot of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is in some ways even more wildly fantastical than that of Shoeless Joe. In this later novel the protagonist, Gideon Clarke, engages in a pseudo-historical quest, as his father Matthew had done before him, to prove the actual existence of an early amateur baseball league named the Iowa Baseball Confederacy. A wealth of information about the league had popped instantaneously into Matthew Clarke's mind one day in 1943 when he was struck by lightning, and he spent the rest of his life fiercely defending the historical authenticity of his vision. Continuing his father's quest, Gideon is particularly obsessed with the notion that the Chicago Cubs traveled to Onamata (then known as Big Inning), Iowa, during the summer of 1908 to play an exhibition game against the Confederacy All-Stars. The climax of the novel occurs when Gideon and his friend Stan Rogalski, a frustrated bush-league player, are allowed to step through one of the “cracks in time” that the Clarkes believe in (“Weaknesses—fissures, if you like—in the gauzy dreamland that separates the past from the present” [7]) and return to the Onamata of 1908. There they discover that the Cubs, featuring their famous pitcher Mordecal “Three-Finger” Brown and their legendary double play combination of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, did indeed play a game against the Confederacy All-Stars—and that the game lasted forty days and 2,641 innings, many of those played during a deluge that drowned several of the players and completely destroyed the town of Big Inning.

As suggested by these cursory plot summaries, Kinsella's stock in trade is a fanciful, even flamboyant imagination of the type more commonly associated with such titles as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Lord of the Rings, or Horton Hears a Who. However, unlike these works of pure fantasy, a Kinsella story also incorporates a significant number of real personages and events: for example, the actual baseball players and J. D. Salinger in Shoeless Joe; and the 1908 Chicago Cubs, President Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Luther Mott, and even Leonardo da Vinci in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. It is this seemingly incongruous mixture of unmitigated fantasy and documented fact that places Kinsella among the leading experimenters with narrative form on the contemporary literary scene.

Various reviewers have cited the peculiar blend of actual fact and incredible fantasy that characterized Kinsella's fiction—not only his baseball narratives but also his stories of Indians, alcoholics, hookers, criminals, book buyers, and gerbils. For instance, Alice Gur-Arie notes that “Kinsella combines the realism of a social commentator with the imagination of a literary escape artist” and goes on to define the stories comprising The Alligator Report as “the work of a man equally at home with fact and fantasy” (19). Similarly, Gary Draper calls the collection of short stories entitled Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa “a sort of documentary fantasy” and further states, “The most interesting selections are those where Kinsella steps into the world of fantasy but keeps one foot on solid ground” (57). Frank Loreto points out that The Iowa Baseball Confederacy exhibits “the quality of a tall tale” (166). And Terrance Cox states of Shoeless Joe: “W. P. Kinsella pursues baseball, most literary of sports, to the anagogic and still manages to write a humane and comic book. His manner recalls Marquez, Jack Hodgins and, not accidentally, J. D. Salinger” (32).

Kinsella himself has frequently commented on the curious mixture of fact and fabrication that has become his hallmark. Citing his preference for what he calls “magic realism,” he claims that a writer's challenge resides in “finding ways to present the mundane, the obvious clothed in words colorful as gift wrapping, offering the reader a vision not seen before …” (“Foreword,” xvii). In another place he writes, “I like to keep attempting the impossible. I like to do audacious things. I like to weave fact and fantasy. I like to alter history” (The Thrill of the Grass, x).

As a creative artist who rightly views the finished text as the only legitimate focus of the writer's concern, Kinsella frequently expresses a genuine annoyance with interviewers and readers who are overly curious about his use of facts, particularly as those facts relate to the area of autobiography. “I don't understand readers' morbid fascination with autobiography in fiction,” Kinsella confesses. Calling this obsession “The Implied Author Syndrome,” he facetiously remarks: “Because of the wide variety of fiction I write, my cumulative Implied Author would be an Indian baseball fanatic who practices magic, has kidnapped J. D. Salinger, and made love to Janis Joplin” (The Thrill of the Grass, ix).

Kinsella's stated views notwithstanding, I submit that curiosity about the degree of fact and fiction, and the artistic amalgam of the two, is not only an appropriate concern of the critic (at least a certain type of critic) but also the source of a great deal of the satisfaction and delight that a reader finds in Kinsella's fiction. Allow me to demonstrate this latter point through the use of the pitching metaphor I promised at the outset.

As any baseball connoisseur knows, the most effective pitcher is one who has command of a variety of pitches and uses that assortment to keep the hitter off-balance, or “guessing.” The basic repertoire for almost all pitchers, of course, includes the fastball and the curve. Both of these deliveries are easily recognizable (at least by outstanding hitters) because of the particular rotation that is put upon the ball by the pitcher's grip and release. For this reason the best hurlers work to master additional pitches: for example, a change of pace, or a slider, even in rare instances a knuckleball. But the most effective, and most fascinating, pitch developed in recent years is the “forkball” (as it was initially called) or (to use the current terminology) “the split-fingered fastball.” This pitch has proven to be extremely successful against even the best of batters, and its success may be attributed to its remarkably deceptive nature: approaching the plate it looks to the hitter like a fastball but at the last second, too late for the hitter to adjust his swing, it drops rapidly downward, transforming itself into a swift curve.

W. P. Kinsella, an extraordinary literary “pitcher,” commands a wide assortment of deliveries; and part of the enjoyment, as well as challenge, in reading his fiction is the mystery or “guessing game” concerning which pitch is coming next. Since he is a fictionist, as opposed to a writer of non-fiction, his principal delivery is the curve ball, that spin of distortion that fiction puts upon straight fact. The result of this pitch is an exaggerated and hyperbolic quality that derives solely from the author's inventive imagination and not from any desire to copy or replicate actuality. (As Kinsella states the case, “Fiction writers work with the imagination. Anyone with basic skills can write documentary realism” [Horvath and Palmer 191]).

Good examples of Kinsella's “curve ball” are “The Thrill of the Grass” and “The Last Pennant before Armageddon,” both of which, like the other stories cited below, are included in the collection entitled The Thrill of the Grass. The title story, set during the baseball strike of 1981, describes the subversive activity of a group of baseball traditionalists who detest artificial turf. Night after night, while the stadium sits empty awaiting a contractual settlement between the players and owners, these fans slip into the stadium with their rakes, water houses, and square sods from their lawns and replace the artificial surface with natural grass. In “The Last Pennant before Armageddon” Al Tiller, the manager of the Chicago Cubs (and the manager with the worst record in professional baseball), hears another of those ubiquitous voices found in Kinsella's fiction, this one God telling him that this is the year the Cubs will win their first pennant since 1945. Later God speaks to Tiller again, adding the caveat: when the Cubs win, it will be the last pennant before the battle of Armageddon that will end the world. As the story unfolds, the Cubs advance to the league playoffs against the Dodgers, the American Navy sails for Sri Lanka and a certain confrontation with the Soviet Union—and Al Tiller's conscience agonizes over the question of whether he should try to give the long-suffering Cub fans their pennant or throw the deciding game in order to save the world.

While the plots of these stories are, in a literary sense, utterly preposterous, it is important to note that they are simultaneously grounded in reality, since they project wish-fulfillments that are as real as the daily box scores: which baseball traditionalist has not longed to see the sport played once again on natural grass, and which Cubs fan has not hoped against hope that this will finally be the year that the Cubs win the pennant?

Frequently Kinsella's interest in the fanciful, the extraordinary, even the impossible is so powerful as to become exotic and surreal. This aspect of his work I equate with the knuckleball, that most unusual of pitches that is so strange and unpredictable that even when batters (and many catchers as well) see it coming they are still overwhelmed by its miraculous movement.

“The Battery” will serve to demonstrate this quality of Kinsella's art. Inspired by the Dominican Republic's adulatory response to Juan Marichal's election into the Hall of Fame, “The Battery” recounts the incredible careers of Esteban Cortizar, the greatest pitcher in the history of his country, and his twin brother and battery mate, Julio. Esteban began throwing his sidearm curve to his brother while they were both still in their mother's womb; and when the twins were born the midwife delivered, along with the two boys, “two miniature baseball gloves, one a catcher's mitt, three kumquat-sized baseballs, and a pen-sized bat” (168). By two years of age Esteban was good enough to strike out his father, and by age seven he was compiling wins in the best league in the Dominican Republic. At age ten, still throwing to his brother Julio, Esteban embarked on a major league career with the Washington Senators that led to Rookie of the Year, All-Star, and Hall of Fame honors, as well as enough wealth to enable him to build his mother a replica of the American White House on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. At the height of his career, following three consecutive 30-or-more-win seasons, Esteban was kidnapped and held for ransom by a group of Dominican guerillas rumored to be in conspiracy with the New York Yankees. Following his release he resumed his big league career, eventually winning 300 games. On the day of his election to the Hall of Fame he received the Order of Great Knight Commander from the president of the Dominican Republic.

As fond as Kinsella is of looping curves and dancing knucklers, he also demonstrates from time to time that he can throw a good hummer, frequently mixing, as we observed with regard to Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, a hard, straight fastball of fact with his grand distortions and evasions of actuality. And, like many of baseball's finest pitchers these days, Kinsella relies upon the split-fingered fastball as his “out” pitch. In terms of the metaphor I am pursuing here, this pitch, which appears at first sight to be a fastball but in actuality is a curve, represents Kinsella's frequent use of the fact-that-turns-out-to-be-fiction or the fiction-that-turns-out-to-be-fact. A great deal of the pleasure that readers derive from Kinsella's work, it seems to me, results from this type of ambiguity. Examples of Kinsella's effective use of the split-fingered fastball, as well as his other pitches, can be found in “How I Got My Nickname.”

This story is another of Kinsella's fantasy narratives set, like Shoeless Joe and the story “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record,” in the context of actual baseball history. The “Nickname” fantasy involves a wish-fulfillment of the protagonist and narrator, who shares the author's name, William Patrick Kinsella (though not his actual birthdate, birthplace, or family background), as well as his self-proclaimed good-hit, no-field reputation as a baseball player (“I'm a pretty fair contact hitter,” Kinsella claims. “I might have made a designated hitter if they'd had such a thing in my day. But there isn't anywhere I can be trusted in the field. I can't judge fly balls at all.” [Knight, 76]). In the make-believe world of the story this fictional Kinsella, a seventeen-year-old high school student, comes out of the stands to sign a contract with the New York Giants as a pinch-hitter and help the team win the pennant. Real history enters the story in that the pennant drive being described is the 1951 “Miracle of Cougan's Bluff” which ended with Bob Thomson's famous homer, the so-called “Shot Heard 'Round the World.”

In fusing the fanciful and factual strands of this story, “Pitcher” Kinsella again demonstrates his command of a wide variety of deliveries. Early in the game Kinsella relies heavily on his “fantastical” curve ball to set the reader up for the later innings. While attending a Giants-Phillies game in mid-August 1951, the protagonist asks the Giants' manager, Leo Durocher, for permission to come down onto the field and take a few swings during the pre-game batting practice. Durocher consents and, after watching the kid sting the ball off batting practice pitchers George Bamberger and Roger Bowman, introduces the youngster to Horace Stoneham, the Giants' owner, who signs Kinsella to a contract. The new player turns out to be a real sensation. As his one-line entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia will subsequently record, he pinch-hits in 38 of the Giants' last 42 games, goes 11 for 33 (with four bases on balls and one hit-by-pitch), his two doubles and two home runs, and drives in eight runs. His clutch hitting down the stretch becomes a major factor in the Giants' drive to claim the pennant.

Another huge curve-ball twist that Kinsella gives to his story is the literary interests he assigns to his characters. The reader is willing to accept as “realistic” the narrator's claim that he is, even at his young age, a published writer and an acquaintance of Flannery O'Connor (though his further claim that he is the model for the main character in O'Connor's Wise Blood pushes even this aspect of the story beyond verisimilitude toward incredulity). But when he characterizes the baseball Giants, their manager Durocher, and even umpire Beans Reardon as intellectuals who can speak Latin and who engage in an ongoing debate about whether The Great Gatsby is an allegory, realism (as it often is in Kinsella's work) is displaced by a rollicking whimsicality.

Some of the best humor in the story derives from these literary frolics. The players have organized a team Literary Society, hold panel discussions during the eight-hour train rides to St. Louis, post reading lists in the dugout, and read novels in the dugout between innings (and occasionally in the on-deck circle)—all of which supports Durocher's assertion that “Baseball players are the real readers of America” (56). On that August day (it was actually August 12) when the Giants started their sixteen-game winning streak with a doubleheader sweep of the Phillies, Willie Mays was reading Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea, Sal Maglie was reading Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and Alvin Dark was reading William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun. Dark must have been reading an advance copy of Faulkner's work, since Requiem was not actually published until September 27. Dark's case provides one example of what I am calling Kinsella's split-fingered fastball: fictional and factual materials are so fused that the reader is left guessing as to which is (or might be) which.

The whole scenario in “How I Got My Nickname” is, of course, preposterous, absurd—a wicked curve indeed! But the principal plot line also has a certain “realistic” quality, since the protagonist is merely being allowed to act out the fantasy of every baseball fan who has ever lived: that is, the dream of joining his heroes on the playing field and coming through with the clutch performance that wins the big game or the championship. In this regard Kinsella is utilizing a myth that is as old as storytelling itself: that of the Terrible Failure becoming the Huge Success, of the Inept Loser becoming the Magnificent Winner, of the Ugly Duckling becoming the Prince. And indeed, this is the pattern that the reader anticipates as the season winds down to its grand finale.

But in setting up this expectation, Kinsella, as a writer who prizes ingenuity and originality, comes up against two major obstacles. First, this old mythic pattern is too obvious, too predictable. Where are the suspense and the pleasure if the reader, like a hitter, knows which pitch is coming? Second, although Kinsella says that he enjoys rewriting history, there are certain events that are so well known and thus so fixed in people's consciousness that they cannot be altered. In the world of baseball Bobby Thomson's home run is one such event. Nobody, not even in Kinsella's fabulated world, can replace the legendary Thomson as the central hero in the story of the Giants' 1951 Championship drive. So Kinsella must come up with another “pitch,” one that will give a new twist to the ancient story of the Weakling becoming the Champ. It's time to throw the knuckleball.

In Kinsella's version of the Giant's famous ninth-inning rally the protagonist has his chance at greatness when he is called upon to pinch-hit for Monte Irvin with two runners on and nobody out. But this time the Boy Wonder fails to deliver, popping out (just as Irvin did in actual fact) and returning to the dugout convinced that his quest for baseball immortality has ended dismally. He cannot know that his supreme opportunity for greatness is yet to occur. After Whitey Lockman doubles home one run, putting the tying runs on second and third, Durocher, in a move that threatens to alter baseball history forever, decides to pinch-hit for Thomson. At this moment the protagonist understands why fate has placed him in this particular situation and time: to preserve Bobby Thomson's baseball immortality. So when the would-be pinch-hitter walks along the bench on his way to the top step of the dugout, the protagonist sticks out his leg and trips him. Severely injured in the fall and hence unable to bat, the reserve player is ushered to the dressing room by the trainer, while Thomson, with the much-needed assist from “Tripper” Kinsella, marches to the plate to keep his rendezvous with history. Thus Bobby Thomson preserves his place in baseball legend and “Tripper” finally earns what his teammates tell him every player must have—that is, a nickname.

Kinsella also slips a split-fingered fastball into his description of the Giant's famous rally. Except for the obvious fabrications of the protagonist's pinch-hitting for Monte Irvin (a curve ball) and the dugout antics that lead to the character's nickname (a knuckleball), Kinsella appears to reconstruct the Giants' last at-bat exactly as it occurred in history (all fastballs). Even the actual plate umpire, Lou Jorda, is introduced into the narrative. But there is one additional exception which only the most attentive of baseball historians will notice. The official box score of the game records that Clint Hartung entered the game as a pinch-runner for Don Mueller after Mueller was injured sliding into third on Lockman's double. In Kinsella's story the pinch-runner is Rafael Noble. A reserve catcher, Noble did actually participate in the historic game, taking Wes Westrum's place behind the plate for the top of the ninth after Bill Rigney had pinch-hitter for Westrum in the bottom of the eighth. But the pinch-runner for Mueller was Hartung, not Noble. Thus in Kinsella's story, a detail that appears on the surface to be a fact (fastball) turns out on closer inspection to be a fiction (curve)—in other words, a split-fingered fastball.

At the outset I suggested that Kinsella's experimental technique links him with other significant innovators on the contemporary literary scene. It is my contention that what Kinsella is doing in his baseball fiction with his curious mixture of fantasy, fact, fiction, fact-as-fiction, and fiction-as-fact places him squarely within the mainstream of the literary movement that is commonly identified by the term metafiction. This term, which is being applied more and more frequently to the works of such authors as John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, John Fowles, John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Kurt Vonnegut (to name only a few), is used to describe a type of post-modernist novel or story that explores, usually in a highly self-conscious manner, the relationship between the world of fiction and the larger reality that presumably exists beyond the pages of a book.

In one sense, of course, this post-modern quest for an ontological basis for the theory and practice of fiction is merely the most recent version of an age-old critical concern. From its inception the novel has always been defined in the contest of the so-called “real” world: romance, for example, has traditionally been understood as the antithesis of, and therefore an escape from, that real world, while realism purports to be its mirror image. What is crucial in metafiction, however, is a deliberate blurring of any distinction between reality and fiction, so much so that, in the hands of these writers, history may be treated as just another fiction and fiction may be granted the same authenticity as fact.

As Patricia Waugh has argued, metafictional technique mirrors, whether consciously or unconsciously, the uncertainties and instabilities of the contemporary world. She notes: “The historical period we are living through has been singularly uncertain, insecure, self-questioning, and culturally pluralistic. Contemporary fiction clearly reflects this dissatisfaction with, and breakdown of, traditional values” (6). In other words, in an age in which there seem to be no definitive answers to the questions of What is real? and What is true?, readers and critics should not be surprised if novelists are unwilling, or unable, to make a clear-cut separation between “fiction” and “reality.”

Though she does not mention Kinsella in her study, Waugh's general description of the behavior of the characters in metafiction reminds one of Kinsella's creations. These characters, Waugh writes, “may act in ways totally deviant in terms of the logic of the fictional world of which they are a part. They may travel in time, die and carry on living, murder their authors or have love affairs with them. … Sometimes they know what is going to happen to them and attempt to prevent it” (92-93). As this observation suggests, W. P. Kinsella is not the only author on the contemporary scene who throws split-fingered fastballs to hitters/readers who might prefer easily recognizable fastballs or curves.

To make my final claim that Kinsella's grand assortment of pitches places him on the team of Metafictional All-Stars, I close with two additional quotations from Kinsella himself. “The world,” he says, “is a totally absurd place” (The Thrill of the Grass, ix). Concerning his fictional technique, he remarks, “I've mixed in so much, I'm not sure what's real and what's not” (Dahlin 7).

Works Cited

Cox, Terrance. Review of Shoeless Joe. Quill and Quire 48 (June 1982): 32.

Dahlin, Robert. “PW Interviews: W. P. Kinsella.” Publishers Weekly 16 April 1982: 6-7.

Draper, Gary. Review of Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa. Quill and Quire 46 (July 1980): 57.

Gur-Arie, Alice. Review of The Alligator Report. Quill and Quire 53 (May 1987): 19.

Horvath, Brooke K., and William J. Palmer. “Three On: An Interview with David Carkeet, Mark Harris, and W. P. Kinsella.” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (Spring 1987): 183-194.

Kinsella, W. P. “Foreword” to Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves: Contemporary Baseball Poems, ed. Don Johnson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991, xvii-xviii.

———. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.

———. Shoeless Joe. New York: Ballantine Books Edition, 1983.

———. The Thrill of the Grass. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

Knight, Ann. “Baseball Like It Oughta Be.” American Film 14 (May 1989): 76.

Loreto, Frank. Review of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. CM 14 (July 1986): 166.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. Methuen: London, 1984.

Timothy C. Lord (essay date fall 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3691

SOURCE: Lord, Timothy C. “Hegel, Marx, and Shoeless Joe: Religious Ideology in Kinsella's Baseball Fantasy.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 10, no. 1 (fall 1992): 43-51.

[In the following essay, Lord explores the spiritual elements in Shoeless Joe, noting that the plot of the novel reveals “basic philosophical assumptions about spiritual and material reality.”]

In 1843, at approximately the time of the rise of modern baseball in America, Karl Marx wrote the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. In the “Introduction” he asserts that “Religion … is the opium of the people” (54). It has been indicated that sport has since replaced religion in this capacity,1 and in W. P. Kinsella's celebrated first novel, the baseball fantasy Shoeless Joe, baseball becomes both a metaphor and a replacement for religion and the religious life. Although the novel's protagonist, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, rejects and even has contempt for contemporary organized religion, he displays an indestructible faith in what is the latter twentieth century's analogue to orthodox religion: sport, and in this particular case, baseball.

This paper has two purposes: (1) to demonstrate how baseball serves as a metaphor for religion in Shoeless Joe, and (2) to show that the way Ray Kinsella handles the possibility of losing his small farm to wealthy land barons reveals his basic philosophical assumptions about spiritual and material reality. Both of these purposes reveal themes that have been hinted at in the growing body of criticism dealing with W. P. Kinsella's baseball fiction. For example, articles that have dealt in limited ways with baseball as a metaphor for religion in Kinsella's work are Brian Aitken's “Baseball as Sacred Doorway in the Writing of W. P. Kinsella,” Thomas L. Altherr's “W. P. Kinsella's Baseball Fiction, Field of Dreams, and the New Mythopoeism of Baseball,” and Robert W. Cochran's “A Second Cool Papa: Hemingway to Kinsella and Hays.” Also, a lively debate centered on the politics of Ray's stance toward those who would take over his farm occurs in a series of short essays by William J. Fischer and Kevin Brooks in The Minneapolis Review of Baseball: A Journal of Writing on Baseball. Despite the merits of these essays, none deals with either of these two themes (baseball as a metaphor for religion and Ray's political stance) as extensively or from the critical perspective that I wish to, nor do they deal with both themes in an integrated way. Dealing with them in an integrated manner shows that ultimately Ray accepts the traditional Hegelian interpretation of reality as the unfolding of absolute spirit rather than a Marxist or materialist reliance on practical activity as a means to combat fundamental oppressions and injustices. Therefore, he takes refuge in the solace of a higher ideal realm—i.e., the eternal, immutable realm of baseball—and only a miracle can save him from material ruin. In Kinsella's imaginative world, Ray need only have faith in the god of Baseball, and that miracle will be provided.

Let me first give what is probably an overly interpreted account of Shoeless Joe with the hope of beginning to delineate how baseball functions as a metaphor for religion in the novel.2 At the beginning of the narrative, Ray, a modern Noah, hears the voice of a ballpark announcer from the heavens saying, “‘If you build it, he will come’” (3). Simultaneously, Ray has a vision of a baseball park, and immediately understands that he is supposed to plow under part of his cornfield and construct a baseball diamond. Once he has done so, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the hero of Ray's dead father, will appear to play on it for all who believe or have the faith to see.3

Realizing the important place of “the great god Baseball” (6) in his life, Ray unquestioningly and tirelessly goes to work, laying out a whole ballpark, but concentrating most heavily on the left field area where Shoeless Joe will play. Three summers later Joe appears, seemingly raised from the dead, and he plays in a game consisting of two teams of ghostly, apparitional players. Finding the field to his liking, Shoeless Joe asks Ray if he can return and bring the other seven White Sox players who were banned from major league baseball after the 1919 World Series gambling scandal. Ray, of course, is ecstatic, and asks if his deceased father, an ex-minor league catcher, could fill the gap in the Sox lineup. Shoeless Joe agrees to give Ray's father a try. Before disappearing into Ray's cornfield, Joe says, “‘This must be heaven.’” Ray answers, “‘No. It's Iowa.’”

Interestingly enough, the second part of the ballpark that Ray completes is home plate—because “it was most important to me,” (21) he says—and he continually pesters Shoeless Joe about when the catcher will appear (this need for reunion and reconciliation with his father will be elaborated on later). As Ray gradually finishes perfecting his ballpark, one by one the banned White Sox players return to life.

One day Ray receives a second message from the voice of the bodiless ballpark announcer. “‘Ease his pain,’” it says. Again Ray has a vision, this time one that depicts him with J. D. Salinger at Fenway Park in Boston at a Red Sox game. Thus begins a quest or pilgrimage that sees Ray leave his farm, wife Annie, and daughter Karin to embark on a trip to Boston in an attempt to “convert” Salinger by rekindling Salinger's supposed childhood love for baseball. Along the way, Ray comes closer to reverently fulfilling one of his father's wishes for him—to visit all the major league ballparks—by making stops at games in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York.

In Boston, like an “overzealous missionary” (54), Ray kidnaps Salinger, who views Ray as a harmless “‘baseball fanatic’” (64) whose visions are a product of his fanaticism. At Fenway Park, Ray tells Salinger about the voice and the appearance of Shoeless Joe in his ballpark, babbling with religious fervor about the stability, permanence, and timelessness of baseball. “‘Baseball is … a ritual,’” and “‘we're a congregation’” (72) he tells Salinger. “‘I want to renew you’” (70). In a state of euphoria, Ray and Salinger see a third vision concerning “Moonlight” Graham and receive a third message via the public-address system. “‘Go the distance,’” (79) it says.

“Go the distance” they do, travelling to the Iron Range in Minnesota to trace Graham, a player born a century before who appeared for only one inning of one game for the New York Giants in 1905. By the time they arrive back in Iowa, they have visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York (the hall of baseball saints), picked up a hitchhiker named Archie Graham who seems to be a younger “Moonlight” Graham reborn, and enjoyed a nighttime excursion to a holy of holies, an empty ballpark, which Ray claims is “‘more like a church than a church’” (135).

When they reach the green, pastoral, rather Norman Rockwellish Iowa that Ray loves, he learns that Eddie Scissons—the man he bought his farm from and pays his mortgage payments to—has bowed to unscrupulous pressure from Bluemark Properties, Inc. and optioned Ray's mortgage to them. This corporation is partly owned by Ray's religious fundamentalist brother-in-law Mark, who dislikes Ray and has been trying to buy his not very profitable farm for months. This farm would enable Bluemark Properties to lease all the farmland in the county to a Texas “computer farming” (162) conglomerate. If the mortgage payments are not kept up to date—which they are not and are not going to be in the foreseeable future—Mark has the legal right to foreclose on the farm.

Ray's problems, of course, are due in part to the construction and upkeep of his ballpark, as well as his lengthy trip to Boston and Minnesota. Refusing offers of financial assistance from Salinger, who has now experienced the wonders of Ray's ballpark first-hand, Ray responds, “‘This seems like such a worldly problem. Surely there was a more important reason [for choosing you to participate in the dream].’” “‘I like to think I'm being put to a test of some kind’” (172). The implication of Ray's comment, of course, is that the “more important reason” for the choice of Salinger is a spiritual one that transcends worldly or material ones.

As the deadline for the mortgage payments approaches, Ray does absolutely nothing to stop the foreclosure of his farm, waiting instead in faith for providence to miraculously intervene. It does. On one of the last days before the deadline, Salinger tells of a prophetic dream he has had. He informs Ray that people will be “‘drawn’” (it should be noted that “drawn” is the Biblical word oftentimes used to explain predestination4) to his ballpark, “‘for reasons they cannot fathom or express’” (211). “‘Innocent as children,’” they will arrive at Ray's farm hungry for the nostalgia of past ways of life, willing to pay twenty dollars per person to watch a baseball game, “‘for it is money they have and peace they lack’” (212). Ray's material needs are thus supplied: as Salinger finishes recounting his dream, the cars begin to pull up, and the “indulgences” of their occupants save Ray's farm from the capitalist computer farmers in the nick of time.5

I will now flesh out more thematically four ways that baseball functions as a metaphor for orthodox religion in Shoeless Joe. First, the most devout baseball fans in the novel hear voices from the heavens that command their obedience, see visions that provide guidance for their actions, and experience dreams of prophecy. These voices, visions, and dreams are the revelations of a providential being who, if believed on faith, will bring wondrous miracles to pass. Second, baseball parks, and Ray's in particular, take on the qualities of shrines or cathedrals. They become enclaves set apart from the larger and less humane world of corporate capitalism, secular churches in which one can reverently “worship” the heroes of baseball in a nostalgic and pastoral nineteenth-century setting. A paradisiacal “‘heaven on earth’” (211), Ray's ballpark oozes an Edenic innocence that returns one to the irresponsibility of one's youth and pushes the problems of the everyday world to the recesses of memory. A third point, then, is that baseball—like orthodox religion—transcends the material world. Its status as a permanent and stable entity not bound by time puts it in a higher realm than that of the material world, a realm above worldly or everyday concerns.

A fourth point—one that will need a bit more elaboration—is that Shoeless Joe, like orthodox religion, posits reunion and reconciliation with the father as of primary importance. Commentators have accepted at face value Ray's claim that “‘If you build it, he will come’” and “‘Ease his pain’” refer to Shoeless Joe and Salinger, respectively. Both messages, however, have double meanings, meanings that refer to Ray's dead father as well. Ray's interest in his father's catching for the Sox and his eagerness to build the ballpark for Shoeless Joe, his father's hero, indicate a yearning on Ray's part for a reunion with his father. Yet reconciliation with his father is less important for Ray than it is for Richard, Ray's previously unmentioned twin brother, a prodigal son type who returns and is, in fact, reconciled in some sense with their father.6

To conclude my analysis of how baseball operates as a metaphor for religion in Shoeless Joe, I want to look at what has been called “the sermon on the bleachers.”7 This will allow me to delineate how baseball can raise the dead, open the eyes of the blind, and provide salvation for those that are chosen by it or converted to it. In “the sermon on the bleachers,” the “oldest living Chicago Cub” (131), Eddie Scissons, “with evangelical fervor” (192), “looking for all the world like an Old Testament prophet on the side of a mountain” (191) or “a fundamentalist who can quote chapter and verse for every occasion” (191), gives a dramatic speech. He says,

The word of salvation is baseball. … Men and women are going to be changed by … the loving word of baseball. … baseball. … You must get the word of baseball within you. … Those we speak to will be changed by the power of the living word. … The word will open the eyes of the blind. The word will raise the dead. … Walk into the world and speak of baseball … so that it may quicken the thirst of your fellow man.

(192)

The sermon on the bleachers is a call for those who love baseball to convert others. Depicting them as evangelical zealots who know the history and lore of baseball, the sermon on the bleachers culminates a novel about rebirth and salvation. The 1919 White Sox, “Moonlight” Graham, and Ray's father are raised from the dead, and most of the major characters in the novel receive salvation in one form or another. The 1919 White Sox are “saved” from their ban from baseball, Salinger is saved from his hermit life and “raptured” into the cornfield in the novel's final scene, Richard is “saved” by being reconciled with his father, and, most significantly, Ray's farm and its revitalizing ballpark are saved from Bluemark Properties.

I have demonstrated that in Shoeless Joe baseball becomes both a metaphor and a replacement for religion and the religious life. It remains to show more extensively how Ray's assumptions about spiritual and material reality are revealed by the way he handles the possibility of losing his small farm to a wealthy corporate land monopoly. He deals with this possibility by undertaking a religious quest and attempting to convert others to the religion of baseball, for he thinks there is a spiritual solution to his worldly trial. This spiritual solution—closely related to baseball—represents for Ray an older, rustic, pre-mechanized America set apart from the dehumanizing technocracy of corporate capitalism, a technocracy he is unwilling to accept. Yet even as Ray is unwilling to accept the proliferation of corporate America, he also refuses to acknowledge its encroachment upon him with any real individual resistance or attempts at broader social change. He fails to respond in any way to the possible foreclosure on his farm beyond a faith that the same providential entity that brought him his father and Shoeless Joe, and led him to Salinger and “Moonlight” Graham, will somehow step in and provide the reprieve he needs. His response to possibly losing his farm, then, is more of a retreat from competitive corporate capitalism than an attack against it. One might argue, in fact, that Ray merely reinscribes competition in “displaced” ways, to use a psychoanalytic term, i.e., competition moves from the realm of capitalism to the realm of sport, specifically baseball. Furthermore, Ray's burying his head in the sand of his own paradisiacal heaven on earth—as well as his later economic exploitation of it—reinscribes the individualistic tenets of rags to riches capitalism that values private dreams and aspirations at the expense of broader movements of social reform. Ultimately, Shoeless Joe is a reflection of a cultural ideology that posits baseball as merely a nonresistant antidote to the oppressions of corporate capitalism, a spiritual haven set apart from and transcending the everyday problems of the material world.

In Shoeless Joe, then, baseball truly does replace religion as “the opium of the people.” Analogous to Marx's conception of religion, baseball dulls Ray's responses to fundamental injustices and oppressions within society, making it seem as if practical action to bring about social change is futile and the only refuge must be found in a higher spiritual realm isolated from the social realm where material problems are rooted. Some additional comments from the “Introduction” to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right are helpful. Marx stresses the need for “practical activity” to bring about humane revolutionary change, maintaining that “material force can only be overthrown by material force” (60). Religion, however, the other side of practical activity, “is the sigh of the oppressed creature” (54), a creature without the means of material force. In the case of Ray Kinsella, baseball is the sigh of the oppressed creature; feeling powerless in the claws of corporate land barons, he rejects practical activity as a means of battling against the material forces opposing him. Instead, he retreats to the realm of theory, thought, and the unfolding of an elaborate providential plan that is analogous to Hegel's unfolding of absolute spirit.

The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is one of Marx's texts most critical of Hegel's claim in the Phenomenology of Spirit that human history is a process of coming to greater knowledge of absolute spirit. For Hegel, absolute spirit is the totality of spiritual (and material) existence—i.e., it is God—and human alienation is the estrangement of humanity from knowledge of absolute spirit. The essence of humanity, then, is self-knowledge or thought, and human activity is ideally the spiritual activity of thought. Ray and the other baseball fanatics of Shoeless Joe are implicated in the contention that humanity and human activity are essentially and ideally spiritual. As Eddie Scissons says in his prophetic speech, “‘The word of baseball is spirit and it is life’” (192). In the end, Ray rejects orthodox religion and corporate capitalism, but reinscribes the oppressive characteristics of both in a version of Hegelian idealism.

This is the idealism that Marx would like to overturn by arguing that Hegel has overemphasized thought at the expense of practical activity in the material world. According to Marx, thought does not gradually “unfold,” as Hegel contended, but material conditions dictate the development of human society and thought. Alienation and its overcoming should, therefore, not be relegated to the realm of thought, but should be analyzed in light of material reality, i.e., society's two class system and the labour process. The above analysis reveals Ray's Hegelian leanings in that he puts his faith in an unfolding providential plan rather than any practical activity that could change material reality. Moreover, overcoming alienation is for Ray a spiritual—rather than a material—matter, and it is baseball as a religion that allows him to overcome this alienation. However, the de-alienating “miracle” imposed by the author at the novel's end provides the conclusion to a work that could only be called a religious fantasy. To conclude, the claim that sport is the new opium of the people certainly has considerable merit, and the analogizing of baseball to religion in Shoeless Joe provides an example of how society has replaced one opium with another less obvious one. Ultimately, Kinsella's novel chooses retreat from the world over resistance or practical activity that could bring about social change, mystifying this choice in a narrative that denies its real consequences. Reading Shoeless Joe or teaching it would thus be incomplete without a cultural studies perspective or a critical interpretation of its ideology. To do a formalist analysis of the novel would likely lead one to judge it harshly for its sentimentality and nostalgia, as many of its critics have rightly done. However, such an analysis could also cause one to overlook an important example of the way literature and other cultural constructs under capitalism have the ability to continually reinscribe hegemonic concepts and ways of thinking in readers and viewers even as more overt structures of oppression are simultaneously dismantled.8

Notes

  1. See, for example, Stanley D. Eitzen and George H. Sage. Sociology of American Sport. Dubuque: Brown, 1978. 301.

  2. I call this an “overly interpreted” account because it is much more than mere plot summary. Rather it is a description of Shoeless Joe read through the claim that the novel analogizes baseball to religion.

  3. Ray's affinity with Noah is made especially clear in a scene from Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, dir. With Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster. Universal, 1989), the movie based on Shoeless Joe, in which a crowd of people park at the side of the gravel road and laugh at Ray as he builds his ballpark.

  4. See John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

  5. Field of Dreams depicts this scene as a nighttime procession to heaven, with the lights of hundreds of cars all headed towards Ray Kinsella's ballpark.

  6. A related point is that the role of women in the church of baseball—just as in the churches of orthodox religion—is, at best, very limited. Throughout Shoeless Joe, Ray's wife Annie stands faithfully behind him, allowing him to make intercession with God while obediently accepting her passive role in the church of baseball.

  7. See the interviewer's remarks in “The Spitball Interview: W. P. Kinsella.” The Best of Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine. Ed. Mike Shannon. New York: Pocket, 1988.

  8. For an example of this reinscription, see Brian Aitken's “Baseball as Sacred Doorway in the Writing of W. P. Kinsella.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 8.1 (1990): 61-75. Here Kinsella is seen as an “anti-establishment” (62) writer for his indictment of organized religion even as he shows how baseball “can be a doorway to the sacred” (61).

Works Cited

Aitken, Brian. “Baseball as Sacred Doorway in the Writing of W. P. Kinsella.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 7.1 (1990): 61-75.

Altherr, Thomas L. “W. P. Kinsella's Baseball Fiction, Field of Dreams, and the New Mythopoeism of Baseball.” The Minneapolis Review of Baseball: A Journal of Writing on Baseball 10.2 (1991): 23-32.

Brooks, Kevin. “A Socialist Slider.” The Minneapolis Review of Baseball: A Journal of Writing on Baseball 10.2 (1991): 39-41.

Cochran, Robert W. “A Second Cool Papa: Hemingway to Kinsella and Hays.” Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature 4.2 (1987): 27-40.

Fischer, William J. “The Conservative Curveball.” The Minneapolis Review of Baseball: A Journal of Writing on Baseball 9.4 (1990): 34-36.

———. “A Solipsist Screwball?” The Minneapolis Review of Baseball: A Journal of Writing on Baseball 10.2 (1991): 41-42.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Kinsella, W. P. Shoeless Joe. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Marx, Karl. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. 2nd. ed. New York: Norton, 1972. 53-65.

———. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Milligan. Ed. Dirk J. Struik. New York: International, 1964.

Mary K. Kirtz (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Kirtz, Mary K. “Canadian Book, American Film: Shoeless Joe Transfigured on a Field of Dreams.Literature Film Review 23 (1995): 26-31.

[In the following essay, Kirtz asserts that differences based on nationality are evident in Kinsella's Canadian novel Shoeless Joe and the American film adaptation Field of Dreams.]

In the opening and shutting of heaven's gate,
Are you able to play the feminine part?

Lao Tzu Tao Teh Ching

Canadian poet Germaine Warkentin once observed that when Americans and Canadians look at each other, it is as if they are looking through a one-way mirror: Canadians look and see Americans, but Americans look and see only themselves. Warkentin's inspired observation of this one-sided relationship resulting from the imbalance of power between the United States and its decidedly weaker neighbor is also a commonly used metaphor in feminist literary and film theory.1 The zeitgeist of a country's popular culture reflects its dominant ideology and, in the case of the United States, this ideology remains both ethno- and androcentric, assigning everyone else to the margins of the privileged white patriarch's egocentricity. While some breakdown of this structure has been attempted during various periods in American history, it has largely survived intact: bloodied, perhaps, but unbowed.

One may examine the validity of these assertions by comparing an American adaptation of a Canadian book, the popular film Field of Dreams, and its literary counterpart, W. P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe. Assessing the impact of the various omissions made, or shifts in emphasis found, between the Canadian novel and the American film reveals the filmmakers' manipulation of the novel's content to establish the story's primacy as a “man's story,” a primacy not found in the novel. On the contrary, the novel presents its story within a framework that suggests the importance of both genders in creating a harmonious universe.

Because both film and book use the essentially masculine preserve of baseball to drive the plot, Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams exhibit similar surface texts. My purpose here is to examine the differences between the subtexts in order to reveal how the makers of the film promote a patriarchally based political message by subverting the novel's more liberal one and eliminating from the film an actively feminine moral presence.

Six characters have been omitted, elided, or changed in the story's transformation from print to film. Omitted are Eddie Scissons, “the oldest living Chicago Cub,” who holds the mortgage note on Ray's farm; Ray's identical twin brother, Richard, who runs away at sixteen and returns during Ray's absence; Richard's wife, Gypsy, who bears a startling resemblance to Annie, Ray's wife; and Ray's mother who, while not a major character in the book's plot, is very important to its theme. At the same time, Annie's brother, Mark, takes over Richard's function in the novel as the unbeliever who is converted to the field's vision at the end. And finally, J. D. Salinger is changed into an influential (but fictional) African-American writer of the 1960s, Terrence Mann.

Although the major plot elements of the novel remain virtually intact in the film, there are some significant differences. First, the period of the story has been moved forward about ten years, so that Ray comes of age in the 1960s in the film rather than in the 1950s as he does in the novel. There is a strong shift in emphasis foregrounding Ray's relationship with his father; in particular, Ray's regret that the two never reconciled their differences before his father's death runs like a leitmotif throughout the film as it decidedly does not in the novel. There is also a scene added to the film which is not in the book, a school board meeting held to discuss banning Terrence Mann's books. These differences say a great deal about Field of Dreams as a promulgator of the conservative agenda of the 1980s, and I will examine them in detail for that reason.

Before I do, however, I want to discuss the various representations—both symbolic and actual—of birds that structure the novel only and emphasize the maternal function of giving life, and that function's impact upon Ray and hence upon the moral underpinnings of the story. Immediately after reminiscing about his father's memories of Shoeless Joe Jackson at the book's opening, Ray notes that on “a spring evening, when the sky was a robin's-egg blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick” (3, emphasis mine) he receives a directive to build a ballpark. The images suggest both gestation and birth, the two prerequisites to life itself.

Later, after Ray buys a gun in order to kidnap Salinger, he recalls an incident that happened when he was ten: he takes his father's shotgun, kills a sparrow, and proudly brings the corpse to his mother, expecting praise. Instead, his mother insists, not once but twice, that Ray “bring it back to life” (31). When he sadly admits that he can't, she suggests that until he can, he should not shoot anything unless he needs it for food. The juxtaposition here between the male imperative to conquer embodied in the phallic act of shooting the bird and the female imperative to nurture contained in the order to give, not take, life needs no further elucidation. It is important to point out, however, that the resolution between these polarities forms the central thematic structure of the novel and is continually brought to the reader's attention through the use of bird imagery.

Describing the impact of Salinger's interview upon him, for example, Ray tells the author that the words:

flew off the printed page, hovered in the air, assumed the shape of a gray bird, and landed on my shoulder. I reached up and picked off the bird and held it in my hand, tiny and pulsing, pressed it hard against my chest, and it disappeared like mist. If I were to open my shirt, and you looked closely, you could see its faint outline in my skin.

(82)

As Salinger continues to be wary of his claims to have brought the baseball players to “life,” Ray feels himself becoming “desperate for someone else to see my creation. My mother. I would like to show her. Let her see what I have brought to life. Have her to be there when my catcher gets to play with the White Sox, as I know he will. What I've brought to life is much, much more than one tiny bird” (83-84). When Salinger and Ray go to Chisholm, Minnesota, to find Doc Graham, they acquire a “flock of followers,” one of whom tells Ray that by their asking about the Doc, “It's almost like you brought Doc back to life” (110). Again, when Ray convinces Richard to meet their father, the latter exclaims, “You mean you've brought him back to life like you brought Shoeless Joe Jackson back to life?” (210). The import of this imperative to bring something back to life is emphatically foregrounded when Ray, seeing his daughter fall, tells us he feels “as if I have a steel egg stuck in my chest” (206). As she lies choking to death, Doc Graham, brought back to life by Ray, brings Karin back to life. By serving as the instrument bringing Karin and her savior together, Ray finally fulfills his mother's directive and atones for having taken the sparrow's life.

The novel closes as it opens, with the image of a bird, this time a silver bird-beak latch which is locked by “pushing the bird-beak through the silver circle” (219). This latch opens the door to the cornfield where the phantom baseball players reside. On the final page, Ray and Annie lock this “heaven's gate” together: “We make our way first to the gate, which Annie and I lock by forcing the silver point through the silver ring, and then on toward the house. On the porch … Annie holds the door open for me” (224). Thus, the female and male forces are symbolically united at the end of the novel through this joint effort performed by the female and male principles: in a harmonious world, the novel suggests, both are necessary.

The sparrow's death also introduces a vision of humanity not found in the film. When Ray phones his mother to tell her of Richard's return, he notes that he feels closer to her than he has in years and suddenly asks her:

“Remember the sparrow?” … I don't give her a chance to reply, but rush on. I retell the story. “Mom, you've got to come and see what I have here. What I've brought to life.” And I charge on. … When I stop for breath, though, she says, “I'm almost sure it was Richard with the gun that day. In fact I'm certain of it. You must be mistaken, dear.”

(171)

Ray's enigmatic twin is part of the dark side of this novel's vision, a side which is studiously ignored in the film adaptation. In fact, Ray's effort to eradicate divisiveness and embrace wholeness through his partnerships with both his wife and his brother is central to the development of the novel's plot and theme.

Ray informs us that except “for my twin brother, I am an only child” (33) and that, except for a four-inch scar that Richard has, “every part of us is interchangeable” (63). While Ray is with Salinger at Fenway Park, he bumps into a pole and acquires a scar exactly like Richard's. Meanwhile, unknown to Ray, Richard has returned to Iowa during the former's absence. Upon Ray's own return, his daughter is uncertain about his identity, asking, “It is really you, isn't it” (151)? At the end, Richard and Ray, “side-by-side like the figures representing the Gemini astrological sign” (214), meet their father together and use exactly the same words to greet him: “admire the way you catch a game of baseball” (214-15). The killing of the sparrow had obviously led Ray to deny his predatory, masculine side, embodied in his brother, Richard (whose possible nickname “Dick” emphasizes his maleness even further). The imperative to “bring something back to life” that drives Ray marks him as the expression of the feminine, nurturing side of their Gemini-like nature. As Ray continues with this quest, his reconciliation with Richard, the eradication of their differences, the subsummation of one into the other as they heal the split between them is inevitable. Whether or not they are actually twins or two halves of the same psyche is not as important as the fact that in the end they are reconciled to each other, become part of the same wholeness of vision, a wholeness comprising both the masculine and the feminine.2

Nor is Ray the only character with a double; not surprisingly, Richard's wife, Gypsy, bears an uncanny resemblance to Ray's wife, Annie, and her name suggests a gypsy rover, the opposite of the faithful wife, and generally a masculine role. Although Annie's hair is red and curly and Gypsy's is black and straight, they both wear blue jeans and black T-shirts on their tiny, wiry bodies; Ray notes that they “are virtually the same size and might have been cut from the same cloth, though on opposite sides of the earth” (201). Gypsy's real name, however, turns out to be Annie as well (176), thus, as with Ray/Richard, alluding to the possibility that the women are two sides of the same person. Furthermore, the novel emphasizes the importance of both men and women contributing equally to a true partnership. Richard shows little interest in participating in Ray's ghostly visions until he realizes that, unlike him, Gypsy can see the players on the field; he then asks Ray to “teach me how to see” (201)—a point which again emphasizes Ray's ability to nurture. Clearly, he wants to participate fully and equally in this experience with his wife. In the end, all four work together to save the farm and the baseball field's special dimension. The doubling thus takes place on two levels: first, within each of the two principal male and female characters, and second, between the two people within each couple.

The ambiguity behind these doubled singularities suggests not only the difficulty of accepting one's opposite side—both internally and externally—but also the necessity of doing so if one is to be fully human. Like the forces of death and life, or the principles of male and female, the impulses toward evil and good reside within each person's totality in equal measure. Similarly, to be able to move beyond the centrality of one's own exclusive vision means seeing that center from other perspectives. The doubled visions which fuse into a single focus, merging margin (Richard/Gypsy) with center (Ray/Annie), underscores the importance of inclusivity: We can't see beyond ourselves if we can't see all of ourselves; we can't see the complexity of others (and therefore, the validity of other positions) if we can't acknowledge our own multiplicity.

This point is brought out most clearly in the character of Eddie Scissons, the liar in the novel who betrays Ray (he sells Ray's mortgage to brother-in-law Mark) yet becomes in the end the truth-telling prophet delivering the novel's central “sermon on the mound” declaiming the Word of Baseball. His own experience on the baseball field enables him to become the mediating instrument for the meeting of both brothers with their father: Eddie is the one who dispels Ray's fear of meeting their father and suggests the words they say. Eddie's transformation from marginal curiosity to central seer occurs after Eddie has seen his fantasy of playing with the Cubs turn into a nightmare on the “field of dreams”: Rather than being the star player he had always fantasized himself to be, Eddie watches this younger self, Kid Scissons, ignominiously turn his team's lead into a loss (again, we have the suggestion of a double, here taking the form of the older self confronting the younger). After accepting the devastating truth that he never could have been a major leaguer, Eddie, far from being bitter at having his fantasy exposed, becomes a promulgator of the belief that people must not fear the truth about themselves. Aware that Ray is afraid to talk to his father, he asks Ray to consider what Eddie himself has learned, pointing out that “you saw what happened to me. I got what I wanted, but it wasn't what I needed to make me happy” (193). He still believes in the power of pursuing one's dreams, but now understands that the pursuit may end in acknowledging a bitter truth rather than in perpetuating a happy fantasy.

This point also underscores the differences between the novel and film in their presentation of the baseball field itself. In the film, the field is a place where only one's nicest dreams come true; in the novel, it is a far more complex place, as shown by Kid Scissons's experience of failure on its pitcher's mound. This episode emphasizes that truth is not always to be equated with a happy ending, but is its own reason for being.

While no film preserves all of a novel's complexities, this novel's emphasis on the need to include equally masculine and feminine principles in a quest for human and spiritual wholeness3 is consistently and relentlessly undermined and replaced by a strong reinforcement of the patriarchal model so dear to those holding the dominant political power during the last decade. During the 1980s, films extolling patriarchal values and male virtues were ascendant, reinforcing the main political message being sent by Reagan's Washington.4 In his discussion of the films of Steven Spielberg, for example, Robert Philip Kolker notes that the “hero takes on the role of paternal savior, that major figure of the’80s (embodied in the presidential persona of Ronald Reagan). The father must prevail” (287). In Field of Dreams, as I have said, we have a prime example of the filmic representation of the 1980s' conservative agenda privileging the patriarchy and undermining all liberal tendencies toward destabilizing it. A comparison of the images framing the film to those framing the novel makes the first of these two items obvious.

The film begins with a photographic biography of John Kinsella, Ray's father. A voice-over (Ray's) tells us that his mother died when Ray was three; in the novel, as I noted, she is very much alive. Thus the mother's nurturing function has been almost immediately appropriated by the father, an appropriation that is consistently evidenced in American films upholding a patriarchal ideology.5 Likewise, Richard, and thus the masculine/feminine, light/dark, good/evil polarity which fuses the brothers into a multidimensional singularity, is missing, leaving only an idealized version of the American male in its place. With mother and brother gone, the focus narrows to Ray's relationship with his father. He tells Annie of walking out on his father after telling him that he “could never respect a man whose hero (Shoeless Joe) was a criminal.” He exclaims with disbelief, “Imagine an American boy refusing to play catch with his father!” Full of regret that he never had a chance to apologize, he admits “I can't bring my father back.” But of course, he does just that; one of Ray's last statements in the film is “It's my father!” and the two finally have their game of catch, one patriarch “passing the ball” to the other, as the credits begin to roll. Annie has conveniently disappeared into the house, just as Ray's mother conveniently died long ago. Likewise, Karin's near death is turned into the occasion for converting brother Mark rather than signalling the final link in the circle of death and life begun in the novel's plot with the sparrow's shooting and ending with Annie and Ray closing (heaven's) gate.

The book's focus on gestation, birth, rebirth, and matriarchal prerogatives has been usurped in the film by the patriarchal imperative. Fathers are evoked throughout the film: Doc Graham, we are told, followed in his father's footsteps when he studied medicine; Mann's father reports him missing (and surely the choice of Mann's patronymic is not accidental); and ostensibly to let the audience know it is 1972 in Chisholm, “the Godfather” is emblazoned on a marquee, but subliminally, another message entirely is being sent by that sign—God as father, the father as God. No Goddesses need apply. Except for Annie, who dresses and behaves like a tomboy rather than like a woman, there are no intelligent female adults in this film; at most, Annie seems to be everyone's favorite sister, a female role with little consequence.

Although the presence of Terrence Mann seems to suggest that some obeisance is being made in the direction of the liberal culture which came into its most recent ascendancy in the 1960s, a careful examination of this decade's representation throughout the film shows the opposite to be true. The scorn in which the 1960s is held within the political ideology of the film is set immediately: Ray tells us that he majored in “the sixties” at college, further implying that his embrace of the sixties ethos was somehow responsible for his estrangement from his father. Thus the epoch of the 1960s (and therefore its liberalism) is set in direct opposition to the most important directive of the film: honor thy father.

The most telling evidence for the film's indictment of this epoch's liberalism is the scene whose surface text appears most to support it: the school board meeting at which one woman denounces Terrence Mann's books and another—Annie—defends them. No men are directly involved in what ultimately turns into a cat fight between two females calling each other names; male responses seen by the viewers are limited to the look of exasperation on the face of a male school board member (who introduces the topic on the agenda in the only rational moment in this scene) and the distant gaze of Ray who is deciphering the intent of his last message from God the Father. Clearly, this argument is not worthy of engaging the male mind. Annie evokes the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, peace, and love in defense of free speech, but emotion (female) rather than logic (male) fuels her arguments. Ray ushers Annie out unceremoniously once he's figured out his directive and she continues to bounce gleefully off the various walls of the high school, delighted at having won—the sixties live, wow, all ri-i-ight! In case the audience has somehow assumed that approbation of the liberal ethos is being invoked here, the film includes one more episode which emphatically revokes that facile assumption.

When Ray finally arrives at Mann's apartment, he recalls a “quotation” from one of Mann's books. In fact, the statement appears in Shoeless Joe as well: Ray says to Salinger as they drive to Minnesota that there is a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens up for a few seconds, or hours, and shows you “what is possible” (84). In the book, the words are taken seriously by Salinger, who continues to question Ray about what he sees and feels.6 In the film, however, these words are used for comic, not serious, effect. They are literally saturated with ridicule as Mann, upon hearing them, screams, “Oh my God! You're from the sixties!” and sprays Ray with insecticide. Thus, “the cosmic tumblers,” so poetically evoked by the silver bird-beak lock clicking into place on “what is possible,” become just another opening for a slap at the novel's ideas.

Annie's defense of Mann's work through her invocation of peace and love is also ridiculed when Mann, shoving Ray out the door, yells that he too remembers the sixties, man; his face filled with scorn, he shouts, “peace, love, DOPE,” leaving for last the word which most evokes the conservative view of the era and subtly blames it (rather than the social policies of the 1980s) for today's need to have a “war” on drugs.

Even some of Salinger's last words in the novel, a repetition of Bobby Kennedy's statement of liberal expectations, “I dream of things that never were” (213), are turned into Mann's conservatively inspired exhortation to “Take care of this family!” before he heads for the cornfield to join the ghosts.

What would have happened to the story if the film had begun not with the father's biography but with Ray's memory of his mother telling him to bring the sparrow back to life? This would obviously lead to the construction of a film reality built along entirely different lines and expose the persistently patriarchal nature of the filmmakers' choices. Asking such questions—What would happen if the dichotomous relationships of Ray/Richard and Annie/Gypsy were foregrounded? If Eddie's acceptance of the truth behind his lies were central?—changes not only the main point of the story, but also shifts the center of the theme and therefore resituates what have become marginal or non-existent issues in the actual film to a new locus within its center. Through such de- and re-centering, one exposes the arbitrary nature of determining the loci of centers and margins, the relationship of subjects to objects, and the social construction of value systems, particularly through popular cultural artifacts such as films.

Notes

  1. Susan Kappeler, for example, in The Pornography of Representation draws a parallel between imperial powers' subjugation of colonists and male domination of women, suggesting that “the root of the problem behind the reality of men's relations with women is the way men see women, is Seeing” (61). She also notes that, in films, the “so-called female point of view is a male construction [of that view] in his own scenario” (90). Teresa de Lauretis makes a similar point about how men see women, noting that in film, “‘a woman’ is constituted as the ground of representation and its stability, the looking-glass held up to men (188).

  2. For further reading on the alter ego in twin stories, see Keppler 14-26.

  3. For further reading on the double as part of a hero's evolution toward spiritual wholeness, see Van Nortwick ix-x, 3-7.

  4. As film theorist Marc Ferro, among many others, has suggested, “Film has played an essential role in the social and cultural history of [the United States]. … The great visions reflected in film transfigure (but with variable modifications) those representations which has successively dominated American life (146).

  5. The enormous success of “action-adventure” films emphasizing stereotypically masculine heroics and starring musclebound men such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarznegger during this period, for example, reflected American concern with its image as a “weakling” after the end of the Vietnam War.

  6. This conversation, too, is replete with the images of gestation and birth. When Salinger asks Ray what he sees and feels at such moments, Ray replies that “you not only see, but hear, and smell, and taste, and touch whatever is closest to your heart's desire. Your secret dreams grow over the years like apple seeds sown in your belly, grow up through you in leafy wonder and finally sprout through your skin, gentle and soft and wondrous, and they breathe and have a life of their own” (84).

Works Cited

Ferro, Marc. Cinema and History. Trans. Naomi Greene. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988.

Field of Dreams. Dir. Philip Alden Robinson. Universal City Studios Inc., 1989.

Kappeler, Susan. The Pornography of Representation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Keppler, Carl. The Literature of the Second Self. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1972.

Kinsella, W. P. Shoeless Joe. 1986 ed. New York: Ballantine, 1982.

Kolker, Robert Philip. A Cinema of Loneliness. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Through the Looking-Glass.” The Cinematic Apparatus. Eds. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath. New York: St. Martin's, 1980.

Van Nortwick, Thomas. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero's Journey in Ancient Epic. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

David Dougherty (review date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Dougherty, David. Review of Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, by W. P. Kinsella. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 1 (winter 1995): 106-07.

[In the following review, Dougherty notes that the release of the movie Field of Dreams has generated new interest in Kinsella's short story collection Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa.]

One night in Texas, the silence was broken by a loudspeaker-amplified midwestern voice, sounding very like a cola spokesperson, saying, “If you print it, they will buy.” Soon the University press brought out a handsome edition of W. P. Kinsella's collection of stories [Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa] that led eventually to the movie Field of Dreams.

The collection came out in Canada in 1980, but the popular and critical success of the 1989 feel-good movie created a receptive climate for Kinsella's collection, upon the title story of which his prize-winning novel, Shoeless Joe (1982), was based. The title story, while overrated, may tell us something about the relation between “serious literature” and pop culture, and eventually about a culture in search of sentimental soothing.

What in the movie is precariously close to sentimentality is in the story pure syrup. The movie is a reassuring text in which the antique simplicity of baseball in the cornfields and a legendary outfielder's revitalization triumph over a decadent society's crassness. Annie and Ray Kinsella's love prevails over the materialistic world's scorn, only to be vindicated materially when hundreds of autos line up to visit the cornfield, now a shrine for an agrarian past. As the decade of Reaganomics and the “me generation” ended, this update of Ozzie and Harriet in Iowa felt reassuring.

In the story, however, the syrup is oppressive. The narrator's (named in the novel) love for Iowa (“this precious land”) is stated rather than dramatized; Anne's dotty selflessness, consistently reassuring her hubby with the line, “Oh, love, if it makes you happy you should do it,” becomes in print little more than Harriet Nelson in tight jeans.

Kinsella's version of baseball as Americana is the story's redeeming feature. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe augment the theme of baseball as a lost ritual in a materialistic society, as do other selections here, especially the splendid “A Quite Incredible Dance,” in which a father and his daughter travel to ballgames trying to hold onto a past that is slipping away from them. The tension among the dances, the game, and a tree as emblems for a past that cannot be kept gives this story real energy and power. Discussing baseball, Kinsella can be refreshing. For example, he puts a Marxist spin on Jackson's conviction for throwing a series in which he hit.375 and fielded flawlessly. Jackson was “innocent, a victim of big business and crooked gamblers,” a symbol of the “tyranny of the powerful over the powerless.”

Several stories here suffer from a mix of writer's workshop (Kinsella attended the famous workshop at Iowa and teaches in one at the University of Calgary) and pop culture. When you get a Kmart in stories by Bobbie Ann Mason or Raymond Carver, it's authentic Americana; when writers' workshops do Kmart, you find yourself condescending to it. Some stories, like the title one, cannot successfully negotiate the abyss between realistic narrative and mystery or magic.

On the other hand, in realistic stories like “A Quite Incredible Dance” Kinsella's voice matters. He no longer writes out of workshop formulae, but out of experience, observation, reflection. A cabbie's passing in “Mankiewicz Won't Be Bowling Tuesday Nights Anymore” is recorded with insight and feeling. The theme involving the reluctant realization that few people really give a damn about the suffering and death of a boss, colleague, and friend gains elegiac power here. A brothel joke played on a soldier in “A Picture of the Virgin” creates meaningful tension between a classic tale of tricking the innocent (whose assumption of experience makes the joke possible and renders it funny) and a sober meditation on the links between prostitution and military deployment.

In the most successful story, “First Names and Empty Pockets,” Kinsella negotiates skillfully among the fictions we create for ourselves, the drab real world and its hold on us, and the demands we impose on pop culture figures to represent for us some alternative to our quotidian predicament. The narrator, an Iowa carpenter, half-believes he has been Janis Joplin's lover and business manager for decades since her suicide—“her rendezvous with the needle.” He recognizes that Joplin represented for a generation one vigorous, artistic, excessive, sensuous commentary on the dullness of middle-class life in America, Iowa; he has created, as an alternative to his ordinary family and job, something very like the dolls he makes as an avocation—an artificial, glamorous, unchanging alternative. In his roles as Joplin's lover, inspiration, source of strength and resilience, he takes his fictive place as participant in, not mere observer of, history.

Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa is an uneven collection, and it's a wonderful irony that one of the weaker stories captured public attention and created a market for the book. Three or four of these stories are gems; but Kevin Costner won't be overacting in the movie version because there won't be one.

Clarence Jenkins (review date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Jenkins, Clarence. “Kinsella's Shoeless Joe.” Explicator 53, no. 3 (spring 1995): 179-80.

[In the following review, Jenkins explores the theme of resurrection in Shoeless Joe.]

In W. P. Kinsella's sports novel Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella's visit with his twin brother's girlfriend Gypsy does not serve merely as a digression from the economic dilemma in which Ray finds himself. While at the carnival with which Gypsy travels, Ray tours the “strange babies” sideshow, where the careful reader is able to encounter a microcosm of the novel's action. It is in the ill-kept trailer that Ray notices “about a dozen glass containers,” each containing a faded black-and-white photograph of a deformed fetus (175). These photographs provide a specific reference to Ray's mythical powers exhibited throughout the text.

Prior to this visit, Ray resurrected eight ballplayers who died scandalously in the fetal stages of their dreams. These eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox had been banished from organized baseball for fixing games during the world series. Until they became phantom ballplayers on Ray's magical field in Iowa, they were never permitted to realize their ballplaying potential. Eight of the photographs Ray regards at the carnival are accounted for by these eight ex-professionals. Four others maimed in the infancy of their desires and likewise brought back to life to quench their ballplaying passions need yet be accounted for in order to explain the dozen pictures to which Kinsella refers.

Two of these remaining four are literally resurrected from the dead to effect their ballplaying ambitions. One is Archie “Moonlight” Graham, an ex-New York Giant whose one half-inning professional baseball career expired before he realized the opportunity to bat. Graham is granted his dearest wish—to hit against major leaguers—at Ray's enchanted ballpark.

Another character returned to life is Ray Kinsella's dad, a frustrated minor league catcher who returns to encounter baseball at the major league level on Ray's field. As a now youthful father, he is also able to experience a camaraderie with his sons before, as Ray explains it, he is “worn down by life” (196). Graham and Ray's father make ten.

The deformed two who complete the dozen are symbolically granted new existences. Eddie Scissons has been a charlatan for decades, falsely claiming to have played professional baseball with the Chicago Cubs. However, after viewing himself actually participating in a game on Ray's field against major leaguers, he dies contentedly, having at last been able to certify his heretofore fraudulent ties to professional baseball.

Kinsella completes the dozen with J. D. Salinger. Salinger refuses to publish and completely forsakes any literary undertakings, but his enthusiasm for writing is renewed at Ray's diamond. At the culmination of the novel, the ghost players select Salinger to accompany them into the cornfield, into a world beyond reality, where he promises to revive his dormant career and fulfill his duty as a writer (222).

The choice of twelve old black-and-white pictures of deformed fetuses by Kinsella parallels Ray's resurrection of the eight banished players; the fulfillment of the frustrated major-league dreams of Scissons, Graham, and Ray's dad; and the reawakening of J. D. Salinger to his calling. Ray's carnival visit to the strange babies sideshow presents the attentive reader a keystone to Ray's restorative activities.

Work Cited

Kinsella, W. P. Shoeless Joe. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.

Ruth Panofsky (review date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Panofsky, Ruth. “Of Loss and Hope.” Canadian Literature, no. 149 (summer 1996): 165-66.

[In the following excerpt, Panofsky evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Winter Helen Dropped By.]

Although each addresses such contemporary issues as the often diminished lives of Native Canadians and the pervasive presence of television in urban North America, two recent novels by W. P. Kinsella and Cordelia Strube are traditional in form and ideology. Each novel charts the linear development of a male protagonist, whose private struggles through a series of difficulties result in a sense of closure. As Jamie O'Day and Milton seek to construct rounded world views out of the disparate, chaotic elements of their lives, they move gradually and progressively toward the hope that concludes their respective narratives.

The Winter Helen Dropped By continues the story set out in Kinsella's earlier novel, Box Socials. Its narrator, Jamie O'Day, begins with a portentous quote from his one-time illiterate father, turned household philosopher: “Every story … is about sex or death, or sometimes both.” And so a narrative unfolds of the first eleven years of Jamie's life, spent largely in the Six Towns Area of Alberta, a rural setting isolated for most of the year by either snow or floods. Unaffected by the daily passage of time, Jamie's early experiences are nonetheless shaped by the time-related circumstances of seasonal change and his family's relative poverty. A precocious and sensitive boy who must complete his elementary education through correspondence courses, Jamie is a keen observer of the people of the Six Towns Area. His storytelling, distinguished by a gentle and loving irony, reveals a depth of understanding of himself and others.

The novel consists of four sections which follow the fall and rise of the O'Day fortunes. The narrative, however, tells as much of other characters as it does of the young Jamie. Although his mind and voice shape the narrative, the reader does not feel Jamie's presence to be either intruding or controlling. In fact, it soon becomes clear that one is reading the work of an accomplished novelist who has fulfilled his early secret desire to become a writer. In his record, author Jamie O'Day, while remaining faithful in spirit and understanding to the child Jamie, seeks to record both the heroic and comic aspects of individual lives marked by trying conditions.

The cast of characters includes the young, pregnant Indian woman, Helen, who frames the novel. Although she is central to the text, she appears only briefly in the first section and again at the end. One is left to speculate, along with Jamie, whether she was first physically abused and later murdered by the young Indian, Bartholomew White Chaps, who is pursued by the RCMP and whose death Jamie himself witnesses. The death of Jamie's infant sister Rosemary, twelve hours after her birth, is essential to section two of the novel and provides the impetus for poignant character portraits of his parents, Olivia and John Martin Duffy O'Day. The bizarre marriage of Beatrice Ann Stevenson and Earl J. Rasmussen takes place in section three and brings together a community of eccentrics starved for social excitement. The power of Kinsella's novel lies in the sympathetic rendering of character, the natural appeal of his narrator, and Jamie O'Day's optimism, which endures in the darkest moments.

Charles Franklyn Beach (essay date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Beach, Charles Franklyn. “Joyful vs. Joyless Religion in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe.Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 16, no. 1 (fall 1998): 85-94.

[In the following essay, Beach examines Kinsella's assertion that “the best sports literature isn't really about sports,” using Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe as his primary example.]

On the surface, W. P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe appears to be a story about baseball, about dreams that come true. However, as Kinsella states, “The best sports literature isn't really about sports” (qtd. in Horvath and Palmer 186). This holds true for Shoeless Joe, a novel that raises a question about priorities: What are the most important things in life? Kinsella uses the language and imagery of myth and religion to answer this question, in the process considering what role religious faith plays in life.

Midway through the novel, Moonlight Graham describes his views on religion in relating his encounter with a member of Billy Graham's evangelistic team:

I've always been too busy for that sort of thing, though Alicia's a good Catholic and my family wasn't very happy when I married her. … [The team member] was tall and pale and wore a black suit and tried to act solemn. Didn't look to me like he found religion very joyful—that's the one word I figure should be associated with it. …

(123-24)

Graham's statement reveals a central theme of the novel: true religion is a joyful experience that enriches the individual and, at the same time, positively influences everyone who comes in contact with him. But most religion is not joyful, at least not from the perspective of the narrator, Ray Kinsella.1 Throughout the novel, he compares and contrasts two religions—joyless Christianity and joyful baseball (the American “myth”). By presenting individual characters who represent each of the beliefs, the narrator illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of belief, as well as the pitfalls inherent in religious experience itself. Ray eventually discovers some aspects of life that he values more than religion—the simple, ordinary blessings of family and community life.2

The participants in organized religion (Christianity) in the novel are, from Ray's viewpoint, an essentially unsympathetic lot. Some, like the member of the crusade team, are simply sour and unpleasant, lacking joy in their faith. Some are hypocrites, such as “the Christian roomer” in Violetene's house who damages his room when cut from the football team (149) and the Episcopal bishop among whose posthumous possessions were found a ton of “pornographic magazines and books” (98). Furthermore, all of the Christians lack sensitivity and understanding, like Eddie Scissons' daughters who, as Eddie says, are “Bible thumpers, and [have] been treating me like I was senile ever since they were old enough to think for themselves” (145). And not only do the Christians have negative moral characteristics and attitudes but they also share a significant character flaw: they “never let you forget they are religious” (148). Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the version of Christianity Ray has encountered is a form of evangelical fundamentalism that stresses acceptance of the Bible in its entirety as a rigid guide for belief and practice, strict personal and social morality, and outward signs of Christian service, especially the evangelism of those who, like Ray, do not believe in Christ. In its frequently negative approach to the values of contemporary society, fundamentalist Christianity is an American religious phenomenon distinct from European evangelicalism (Marsden 3, 221-28). As such, it is an appropriate form of religious expression to contrast with the “other” uniquely American mythos, baseball.

The central representative of Christianity in the novel is Annie's mother, Violetene, a woman who, with “silver-rimmed glasses flashing glints of disapproval at everything in sight, sat ramrod straight. … When there were lulls in the conversation she read her Bible, sneering a little in her perfection” (23). Ray notes that Violetene pays special attention to “gossip of the most malicious kind, or a story of terminal illness,” and her memory is quite good at recalling any time “she was in some way slighted” (164). Violetene not only repeatedly reminds those around her of her religious inclinations but she also delights in portraying others as her inferiors. This attitude arises out of her inclination to judge the character of others on the basis of their religious beliefs. When Ray first meets her, he is inquiring about an advertised room, but she immediately asks him, “Are you a Christian?” (148). For Ray, Violetene represents all that is misguided about religion because she is externally religious: she has an annoying habit of working “the Lord into every conversation …” (148).

Annie's brother Mark, another Christian, is given a similarly unsympathetic portrayal by the narrator. Mark is a professor at the University of Iowa, as well as an investor and businessman. It is this last occupation that brings him into conflict with Ray: with his family's support, Mark attempts to buy Ray and Annie's farm and convert it, along with neighboring properties, into a computerized commercial farm. His materialistic aspirations often dominate his activities, and when he pursues a financial target, he does so with religious fervor, “his beady eyes blazing like those of a zealous evangelist” (163).

This dedication to his investments supersedes Mark's spiritual convictions. Unlike his mother, Mark is willing to make business deals with non-Christians in order to make money—one can probably assume that his partner Bluestein is not a fundamentalist Christian since Ray never mentions that fact. Mark also does not seem as interested in the character of the college students who live in his apartment buildings: he seems primarily interested in charging them “exorbitant rates” in order to make a profit (62). And Mark appears to have no scruples or limits to his scheming and manipulating. For instance, when Ray refuses to sell the farm, Mark blackmails Eddie Scissons into signing over the mortgage by threatening to tell the true story about Eddie's days as a ballplayer. But when this effort to foreclose on the farm fails, Mark shows his lack of consideration for his promises to Eddie and for the feelings of others by telling the secret anyway (182).

Throughout the novel, Mark fails to understand the dedication Ray and Annie have to their dreams: he cannot comprehend Ray's fascination with baseball and Annie's love for her husband. And he cannot comprehend Ray's attachment to the farmland itself. Mark sees the ideal farmer as operating a huge computerized mechanical apparatus, pushing buttons to program the actions of the equipment—a process Ray calls “all neat and clean and sterile and heartless” (163). Ray has already described his epiphanic experience with the “soft black soil” (13-14), an experience Mark does not share because he has not been “touched by the land.” When Ray tries to explain that farmland is “not just a product,” his brother-in-law just “stared … uncomprehending, seeing only the money breeding incestuously, diversifying, multiplying …” (163-64).

The problem with Mark, as far as Ray is concerned, is that he fails to see beyond himself and his goals. Richard Alan Schwartz sees Mark as an “unbeliever” (145), but for Ray, Mark is a believer who believes in the wrong things—the world of stocks and bonds and investments and life insurance, the world Ray left to become a corn farmer. Mark's materialism and evangelicalism represent the two forces most opposed to Ray's idyllic life as a farmer and baseball fan. And from Ray's perspective, Mark's narrow-mindedness involves a lack of mental and spiritual perception: Mark and his family had “not an imagination among them except to forecast the wrath of God that will fall on the heads of pagans such as I” (5).

Thus, Christians appear in Shoeless Joe as joyless people who allow their religious zeal to interfere with their obligations to family and society. They may uphold a highly negative, legalistic sense of morality, as does Violetene, or they may blend their faith with an aggressive materialism, as does Mark. Whatever the case, the Christians in the novel end up taking “themselves too seriously,” a condition Kinsella believes makes them, and by implication their faith, “absurd” (Thrill of the Grass ix-x). The repeated efforts of the Christians to separate Ray from the farm—which throughout the novel represents his sense of Paradise—show they lack the imagination necessary to share Ray's dreams and ideals. Indeed, Kinsella suggests that baseball “fans are intellectuals if not philosophers” because a spectator needs more “imagination” to follow the action in baseball than he does for any other sport (qtd. in Chism 1C-2C). Because they lack the necessary imagination, Ray's in-laws are unable to see the action on the baseball diamond in Ray's cornfield and thus believe that he and the other spectators are crazy.

Clearly, the external religion of Annie's relatives contrasts with the internal nature of Ray's experiences. But what is the nature of those experiences? And is “baseball” actually a religion? Most readers might find the narrative's credibility tested by the second question. However, in the world according to Ray Kinsella, baseball is both a game and, at the same time, something more. Early in the novel, he tells the reader about “the loves in my life: Annie, Karin, Iowa, Baseball. The great god Baseball” (6). For him, baseball is the great American myth, and he describes “a ballpark at night” as being “more like a church than a church” (135). As early as 1919, Morris R. Cohen described baseball as a truly American religion:

The essence of religious experience … is the redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part. And is not this precisely what the baseball devotee or fanatic, if you please, experiences when he watches the team representing his city battling with another? Is there any other experience in modern life in which multitudes of men so completely and intensely lose their individual selves in the larger life which they call their city? … In baseball the identification has even more of the religious quality, since we are absorbed not only in the action of the visible actors but more deeply in the fate of the mystic unities which we call contending cities.

(qtd. in Joffe 153)

Schwartz calls this myth a “secular faith” that “requires a leap of faith” on the characters' and on the reader's part (145). And novelist Kinsella states that “on the true baseball field the foul lines diverge forever, the field eventually encompassing a goodly portion of the world. …” Since there is also “no time limit” to the game, Kinsella believes that “this openness makes … for mythology” (qtd. in Horvath and Palmer 188). As part of its mythos, baseball includes history, nostalgia, and the heroic, legendary exploits (Thurn x). But while “the timelessness of baseball … makes it more conductive to magical happenings than any other sport,” it does not make its participants superhuman or divine: in his writings, Kinsella suggests that “baseball players are very ordinary mortals with the same financial, and domestic problems as Joe Citizen” (Thrill of the Grass xii). This is also certainly true of nonplayers associated with baseball, such as Ray Kinsella, whose financial struggles underlie much of the novel.

In the novel, baseball has all of the positive, life-enhancing qualities a religion ought to have. Through its power, J. D. Salinger leaves his reclusive lifestyle and is “raptured”; Ray's brother Richard is reconciled to their father; Moonlight Graham sees his lifetime dream fulfilled; and the farm's mortgage is paid off. Lest the reader miss the significance of these miraculous happenings, the idea is reinforced late in the book, when Richard asks of the daily gathering in the left field bleachers, “Is this some kind of religion?” and Ray answers, “It may be” (168). As Kinsella elsewhere suggests, “Baseball … is ‘an art and a religion’ …” (qtd. in Chism 1C).

Timothy C. Lord asserts that in Shoeless Joe “baseball becomes both a metaphor and a replacement for religion and the religious life,” an example of what has become a primary alternative devotion in the late twentieth century: sports (43). Lord sees the analogy between traditional religion and the baseball mythos particularly appropriate, as several characters are resurrected and many of the others “receive salvation in one form or another” (47). In serving this function, baseball ironically fulfills Marx's vision of religion as “the opium of the people” because it simply imposes a new religious belief system on the ruins of the old (Lord 48).

Ray Kinsella serves as a prophet figure for this “religion” of baseball. Linda S. Joffe compares Ray's role for baseball to that of Jesus in the New Testament (156-57), but that analogy can be only partial, as Ray never makes the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs. Instead, he merely suffers verbal persecution and a brief financial hardship. Yet he does play an important role in leading and organizing devotion to baseball. He hears an invisible voice speaking to him and obeys its instructions to build a ballpark, to take J. D. Salinger to a ball game, and to visit Moonlight Graham in Chisholm, Minnesota. Knowing that obedience to the voice may cost him the farm, Ray obeys anyway, willing to risk everything, willing to act so that Shoeless Joe and the other 1919 White Sox players may have another chance to play and so that Salinger may have his mysterious pain “eased.” This obedience Salinger calls Ray's “passion for baseball” (83). Ray himself describes his experience as a feeling similar to “just falling in love—you want the sensations to last forever” (91). As part of his prophetic role, Ray seeks to communicate his vision to others. As an active proselytizer, he gains new converts in Salinger, Gypsy, Eddie, and, by the end of the book, even the skeptical Richard.

Additionally, Ray acts as priest of the religion. He leads others in the daily ritual of watching games from the left field bleachers. He presides over the burial of Eddie Scissons and provides a more sympathetic (though brief) ceremony than the “minister” who earlier “ranted and chanted and raged over his coffin” (199). He teaches his daughter Karin the essentials of the game, raising her to enjoy baseball as much as he does (26). And when publicly confronted with Eddie's false past, he forgives the would-be Cub because he understands that Eddie's dream to play major league ball had been “rewarded with … frustration and disillusionment” (184). But Ray is not a priest in the Christian sense, as becomes apparent through allusion to Ray's “pagan” condition (5) and through description of his appearance, which in the moonlight is that of “an Aztec priest” (137). Such a priest would be more concerned with the rituals and rhythms of daily existence and less with the eternal elements of religion, including salvation and the afterlife. Certainly, in Shoeless Joe Ray himself, while curious about what lies beyond the cornfield, has no knowledge of what force or entity “controls the strings” on the whole magical experience (214).

Some who witness his activities, like Mark, call Ray “crazy” for his faith, and Salinger suggests that he “could be accused of being possessed …” (137). Indeed, throughout the novel, Ray's actions border on the irrational; his cross-country trips and his construction of the ballpark lead his in-laws and his neighbors to question his sanity. But Ray is not crazy, as he demonstrates through the course of the novel. By the end, what matters to Ray is not some ritual or abstract truth, but “love, and family, and life, and beauty, and friendship, and sharing …” (215). Ray understands that these are the things in life that are truly important; this understanding motivates him to obey the voice when it urges him to act so others will be healed. This understanding also enables him to accept Eddie in spite of the old man's untruths (183).

This understanding, however, is only part of Ray's perspective. He has a quality that the Christians lack and that he, Salinger, and Moonlight Graham share—“imagination” (75). All three characters have the ability to communicate their vision of life—Ray through his ballpark and through his story-telling, Salinger through his writing, and Graham through his life of service as a doctor. In each case the vision is communicated in a manner that is not confrontational or judgmental: the message is placed within a medium intended to promote healing or transformation of life.

Throughout the novel, Ray struggles to keep a balanced perspective on his passion for the game. When Salinger asks, “Is there a baseball devil?” Ray answers, “Anything taken too seriously becomes a devil” (137). Even baseball, if it becomes an all-consuming obsession, can become a “devil,” and in Eddie Scissons' case it does. Eddie, who describes himself as “a very religious man” (106), has not shared the experience of playing major league baseball, so he weaves for himself a whole past history with the Chicago Cubs. Consequently, he has lost the ability to distinguish between his stories and actually experienced events. Even after his younger self has been humiliated in the magical ballpark and Mark has publicly revealed the truth, Eddie still believes: “It takes more than an infinite ERA to shake my faith …” (194). Eddie has failed to find happiness in the game itself, but he finds some peace at last in his acceptance by Ray and the other “believers”—in spite of his failure as a ballplayer and as a mythmaker.

But Eddie carries his devotion to baseball too far. His emotional, enthusiastic sermon contains the same “evangelical fervor” that alienates Ray from his Christian in-laws. He is described as becoming “a fundamentalist” who preaches the “word of baseball” in loose paraphrases of biblical passages. When he enthusiastically claims that “the word of salvation is baseball,” Eddie has clearly stepped beyond rationality, and the only thing that keeps his audience's attention is the sheer force of his voice (192-93). Ray recognizes Eddie's sermon has made the baseball myth into a didactic religion, and this makes the old man, despite his sympathetic qualities, a spokesman for evil. This idea is reinforced by reference to “the serpent head” of the “cane” Eddie leans on. And the sequence of events ironically supports Mark's viewpoint: “He [Mark] points at Eddie Scissons like a tent-meeting evangelist pointing at the devil” (182).

The character who keeps baseball in its proper place in life is Dr. Graham, the larger-than-life humanitarian who had a powerful impact on the residents of Chisholm. For example, Graham is not inflexible in his loyalty to the sport, as he tells Ray: “Any game becomes important when you know and love the players” (117). He is a content man who has “always done the things [he] enjoyed most—doctoring and playing baseball” (122). And his priorities always remain in that order; when Ray's daughter Karin falls from the bleachers, Graham sacrifices his dream of playing in the major leagues to revive her (208-09). He tells Ray that he never regrets giving up baseball, but “if I'd only got to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy. You have to keep things in perspective. I mean, I love the game, but it's only that, a game” (127).

Moonlight Graham's life of service as a doctor, attested to by many of the residents of Chisholm, serves as an example of a truly religious life, as Ray would define it: “It seems to me that a truly religious person would let his life be example enough, would not let his religion interfere with being a human being, and would not be so insecure as to have to fawn publicly before his gods” (148). Graham does not remain in his baseball past, nor does he display mementos and honors in his office. As he tells Ray, “I never talk about my past unless I'm asked, and then the less the better” (124-25). The doctor's restrained behavior contrasts with Eddie's lifetime of stories and Ray's endless retelling of his experiences. Of all the central characters, only Graham successfully balances his devotion to the game with his real-life responsibilities. Like Shoeless Joe and the other White Sox players, Moonlight Graham only participates in the magical game in Ray's ballpark after his life is complete.

According to Graham's example, religion should be a celebration of life carried out in each person's daily activities. One's faith must be kept in perspective with one's duties and family obligations: an ideal or a belief that interferes with life itself is a “devil” that threatens the rationality of that life. Because baseball is “only a game” and does not pretend to have far-reaching implications for the hereafter, it can be a joyful enhancement to the daily routine, as the game is for those who sit each day in the left-field bleachers at Ray Kinsella's ballpark.

However, some readers might object to the apparently unbalanced presentation of religion in Shoeless Joe. On the one hand, the supporters of baseball range in attitude from the rational perspective of Dr. Graham to the unrestrained fanaticism of Eddie Scissons, while on the other, all of the representatives of Christianity in the novel are manipulative and fanatical or participate in some sort of moral hypocrisy. It is particularly ironic that the characters in the novel who claim to be followers of Christ consistently fail to follow their Lord in humility and moral purity—two of the chief characteristics of Christ Himself. The Christians in the novel also lack the spirit of Joy which some Christians, such as C. S. Lewis, discover is at the center of a living faith (219-22). However, when one reads Shoeless Joe, one must remember the perspective from which the novel is narrated—the voice of Ray Kinsella. Ray's reliability as a narrator is hardly in question, for his presentation of the fantastic elements of the story is consistently grounded in solid physical details and regularly questioned from a skeptical viewpoint. The resulting narrative is probably as realistic in tone as any fantasy or religious tale could be. But at the same time, Ray allows his own religious presuppositions and his attitudes toward his in-laws to color his treatment of the two faiths.

As a result, Ray himself ironically undercuts the novel's emphasis on maintaining balance, leaving the reader questioning Ray's motivation: Is his primary goal to support and encourage the mythic qualities of baseball? Or is his primary goal to oppose anyone or anything that will not (or cannot) support his devotion to the game? Perhaps the answer lies in Ray's treatment of Eddie and Annie's family. Although Ray knows from the beginning that Eddie's stories are not true, he withholds that knowledge from the reader until Mark blurts out the truth late in the narrative. Meanwhile, Ray repeatedly reminds the reader of the weaknesses and failings of his in-laws. Both Eddie and Violetene have wronged Ray, but he only chooses to forgive Eddie because the would-be Cub shares his beliefs. Thus, Ray's inability to transcend his personal feelings reveals potential limitations in his belief system similar to those he identifies in traditional religion. But it is unclear whether the limitations originate in Ray's myth or in his own character, since he never applies the same scrupulous analysis to his own behavior and motivations that he applies to the other characters. In any case, Ray's relationship with his wife's family is a matter that remains unresolved at the end of the novel.

Furthermore, he is reminded of his own tendency toward self-centeredness by Salinger, after Ray protests the novelist's opportunity to visit the mysterious spiritual world beyond the left-field fence. Neil Randall comments that, although Ray has participated in the creation and presentation of the fantastic ballpark, he is denied access to the full extent of the mystery: Ray “alone is unable to discover precisely what his magic does” (179). Since Ray is unable to share in Salinger's rapture, he makes obtaining the experience his ultimate personal goal:

My hope is that if I serve them [the White Sox] well, I may someday be told their secrets, may even be invited to walk through that door with them after a game.

(220)

The danger here is subtle: if Ray's motivation for service becomes some future reward, he sows the seed for future corruption of his faith, the same kind of corruption he has identified in organized religion.

Beyond Ray's own limitations as a story-teller and religious leader, his religion of baseball ultimately has limited altruistic qualities—limited primarily to communal participation in the game as spectators and to obeying a supernatural voice that gives instructions. For Ray, baseball does nothing more, nor should it. But baseball can be a joyful experience, even if one is only a spectator. And the excitement of the game is something he perceives as absent from traditional religion. This limited application of the “myth” shows up in Ray's situation at the end of the novel: despite his travels, his conversations with Salinger and Graham, and his reunion with his father and brother, Ray does not seem to have reached any life-changing conclusions from his experiences. He seems content to continue dwelling in the “isolation” of Annie's love (184). Nor does the baseball mythos itself provide the metaphysical framework necessary for such life changes. A potential future problem does arise, however, when Ray makes a religion out of baseball, especially if Salinger's vision comes true and the ballpark becomes a shrine to which hundreds and thousands of visitors come and pay the twenty-dollar admission fee (211-13).3 Much like the fundamentalists he despises, Ray runs the risk of institutionalizing an individual, internal mythic experience that has few corrective guidelines or principles to keep it focused on the things that matter: love, family, life, beauty, friendship, and sharing.

Notes

  1. Since the narrator of Shoeless Joe shares the same last name as the author, there exists the temptation to read the novel as (quasi-)autobiography. But the author rejects a direct identification of himself with the narrator. Certainly, there exist fundamental differences between the two, including a difference in beliefs: while Ray Kinsella is a follower of the “great god Baseball,” W. P. Kinsella states, “I am a realist. There are no gods. There is no magic” (Thrill of the Grass xi). In any case, an autobiographical reading of Shoeless Joe would not significantly alter the nature of the religious conflict within the narrative; the question of the relationship between author and narrator would be a separate study.

  2. It is important to note that, while this is also the conclusion reached by the screenplay of the movie adaptation, Field of Dreams, the film does not address religion to any significant degree, and it deletes several characters who contribute to the religious discussion, including Eddie Scissons, Gypsy, and Ray's twin brother Richard. Additionally, the significant negative influence Violetene exerts on Ray in the novel is greatly diminished in the movie.

  3. It is perhaps ironic that the baseball field constructed in Dyersville, Iowa, as part of the set for the film Field of Dreams had become (by 1993) a shrine attracting 65,000 pilgrims a year (Fong 29).

Works Cited

Chism, Olin. “A Field Where a Novelist's Dreams Can Play.” Dallas Morning News 1 May 1992: 1C-2C.

Fong, Bobby. “The Magic Cocktail: The Enduring Appeal of the ‘Field of Dreams.’” Aethlon 11.1 (1993): 29-36.

Horvath, Brooke K., and William J. Palmer. “Three On: An Interview with David Carkeet, Mark Harris, and W. P. Kinsella.” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 183-94.

Joffe, Linda S. “Praise Baseball, Amen: Religious Metaphors in Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams.Aethlon 9.2 (1992): 153-63.

Kinsella, W. P. Shoeless Joe. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.

———. The Thrill of the Grass. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt, 1955.

Lord, Timothy C. “Hegel, Marx, and Shoeless Joe: Religious Ideology in Kinsella's Baseball Fantasy.” Aethlon 10.1 (1992): 43-51.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Randall, Neil. “Shoeless Joe: Fantasy and the Humor of Fellow-Feeling.” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 173-82.

Schwartz, Richard Alan. “Postmodernist Baseball.” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 135-50.

Thorn, John, ed. Introduction. The National Pastime. New York: Warner, 1987. ix-xi.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 October 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

SOURCE: Review of Magic Time, by W. P. Kinsella. Kirkus Reviews 69, no. 19 (1 October 2001): 1385-386.

[In the following review, the critic faults Magic Time for being overly sentimental, contrived, and a rehashing of similar themes and plots from Kinsella's previous novels.]

Canadian native Kinsella's first novel to be published in the US since Box Socials (1992), [Magic Time,] is another saga of baseball in Iowa.

Ever since the success of Field of Dreams, the film based on his novel Shoeless Joe, Kinsella has been plowing the same furrow of corn-fed, baseball-driven magical realism. This new effort comes after a long layoff resulting from a serious accident that cost him four years of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Regrettably, like a player coming off the disabled list, Kinsella seems rusty, his timing more than a little off in this story of Mike Houle, a star college second-baseman at the end of a lousy senior year who is offered one last chance at a baseball career by his agent. His last-ditch effort will put him in the semi-pro Iowa Cornbelt League in the idyllic town of Grand Mound. But it quickly becomes obvious to Mike, who narrates, that Grand Mound is, if anything, too idyllic. The family he stays with treats him like a son, welcomes his widower father with glee, and hooks him up with a pretty widow. Everyone seems too good to be true, and the team never gets beyond playing inter-squad games that attract the entire population of the town. Of course, there's a deep secret, but, as usual in Kinsella's feel-good fairy tales, the secret is as much in Mike's heart as in the town itself. Kinsella has been guilty of overwriting, but the purple patches in Shoeless Joe were amply compensated by a certain craftiness in the book's overall architecture. The prose in this outing, regrettably, is flat and affectless, devoid of texture or sense of place or era, while the interweaving of plot strands is mechanical.

The result is a treacly valentine to small-town life in something akin to the Norman Rockwell mode.

Publishers Weekly (review date 29 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Review of Magic Time, by W. P. Kinsella. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 44 (29 October 2001): 36.

[In the following review, the critic delivers a brief plot summary and contends that while not as strong as Kinsella's previous works, Magic Time still provides a satisfying ending, genuine characters, and an interesting look at baseball history.]

Previously published in Canada and optioned for film by the producer of The Natural, [Magic Time] is a warmhearted, homespun novel by the award-winning author of 30 books—including Shoeless Joe, which was made into the Academy Award-nominated Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams. When LSU's phenomenal second baseman Mike Houle turns down a signing bonus from the Montreal Expos in order to complete his senior year and graduate, his performance on the field declines, and he is passed over in the next draft. Desperate for another chance, he accepts his agent's offer to sharpen his skills, playing the next season for Grand Mound, Iowa, in the conspicuously anonymous semipro Cornbelt League. While the semipro circuit pays a modest salary plus room and board with a local sponsor, it also requires the players to work at regular day jobs, usually provided by the local businessmen sponsors. Mike soon discovers that the town is populated by former players who married local girls and stayed on to raise families, and it just so happens that his sponsor has a beautiful daughter. During the preseason, Mike falls for the girl, and the plot thickens when his widower dad comes to see him play and is invited to stay at the home of a comely widow. Is this paradise, or is it an all-too-comfortable prison? Feeling betrayed, Mike takes another offer, but soon finds that the grass is not always greener. This soft lob of a novel doesn't fly quite as high as the author's previous home-run hits, but satisfies with its endearing characters and baseball lore.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

CRITICISM

Asinof, Eliot. “Did Leonardo Invent the Home Run?” New York Times (20 April 1986): 15.

Asinof argues that Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is slow and repetitious.

Batten, Jack. “Diamonds Are for Evers.” Books in Canada 15 (August-September 1986): 20.

Batten offers a positive assessment of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, complimenting Kinsella's “fine lyrical style.”

Cochran, Robert W. “A Second Cool Papa: Hemingway to Kinsella and Hays.” Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature 4, no. 2 (spring 1987): 27-40.

Cochran explores the influence of Ernest Hemingway on the prose of Kinsella and Donald Hays.

Collins, Anne, Jack Hodgins, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and John Richardson. “Pride of the Sox.” Books in Canada 12 (April 1983): 8-9.

Collins, Hodgins, MacEwan, and Richardson—the judges who awarded Kinsella the seventh annual Books in Canada first-novel award—discuss their impressions of Shoeless Joe.

Flagg, Fannie. “Will Truckbox Al Make the Team?” New York Times Book Review (12 July 1992): 33.

Flagg praises Box Socials, calling it a “charming and funny little hickory nut of a novel.”

Kaufmann, James. “The World According to Silas Ermineskin.” Christian Science Monitor (21 September 1984): 22.

Kaufmann discusses the narrative voice in the stories of The Moccasin Telegraph.

Kinsella, W. P., and Lynn Gray. “Interview: W. P. Kinsella.” Short Story Review 5, no. 3 (summer 1988): 2, 10-11.

Kinsella discusses the craft of writing, his short stories about Native Americans, and his overall body of work.

Kinsella, W. P., and Ann Knight. “Baseball Like It Oughta Be.” American Film 14, no. 7 (May 1989): 76.

Kinsella and his wife—author Ann Knight—discuss the filming of Field of Dreams, the film adaptation of Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe.

Mason, Roger Burford. Review of Magic Time, by W. P. Kinsella. Quill and Quire (June 1998): 53.

Mason praises Kinsella's prose in Magic Time, noting that the novel's ending is “certainly quite satisfactory.”

Mitgang, Herbert. “The Major-League Hopes of Life's Minor Leaguers.” New York Times (25 March 1992): C21.

Mitgang asserts that Box Socials uses baseball to reveal something about small-town life and everyday hopes.

Okrent, Daniel. “Imaginary Baseball.” New York Times (25 July 1982): 10.

Okrent lauds the mixture of literature and baseball in Kinsella's Shoeless Joe.

Pellow, C. Kenneth. “Shoeless Joe in Film and Fiction.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 9, no. 1 (fall 1991): 17-23.

Pellow compares Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe to its film adaptation, Field of Dreams.

Sayers, Valerie. “If He Wrote It, They Will Read.” New York Times Book Review (19 December 1993): 14.

Sayers discusses the different types of stories found in Kinsella's collection Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa.

Additional coverage of Kinsella's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 35, 66, 75; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 27, 43; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers.

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