Sunday, November 23, 2003

The Dixon Cornbelt League and Other Baseball Stories, by W.P. Kinsella

I probably would not love baseball like I do were it not for W.P. Kinsella. Here's the story: when I was growing up my younger brother had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, which I used to page through, not because at that time I had much interest in sports, but because I was (and still am) a compulsive reader. So one day in 1986 (I think) I'm paging through when I notice these wild illustrations of Indians and angels and baseball players accompanying some article. It proved to be an excerpt from Kinsella's novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, which is just about the wildest baseball book you'll ever read. Baseball has been mixed with the fantastic by others (notably Michael Bishop in Brittle Innings, which I highly recommend), but never in such a matter-of-fact way. Kinsella has the hand of a magical realist, and he uses it to paint Bosch- and Breughel-like tapestries of baseball weirdness.

This collection, while never equalling The Iowa Baseball Confederacy or Shoeless Joe (the Kinsella novel which Field of Dreams was based on), has moments of greatness. Roberto Clemente washes up on a Florida beach fifteen years after his disappearance. Christy Mathewson gives a Cleveland Indians manager advice over the bullpen phone despite having been dead since 1925. Werewolves and born-again Christians and retired pitchers with mysterious mother-in-laws inhabit these stories. Some are chilling, some funny, some sad, but all are suffused with the love for baseball which infected me seventeen years ago. I don't think you have to love baseball to enjoy this collection, but I may be biased. To me, the love for the game which comes through in Kinsella's work and the skillfulness of his storytelling make these stories a joy even if you don't know a thing about the infield fly rule. But start with The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.