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Magic Time

By W. P. Kinsella, Reviewed by Vic Verney

The Diamond Angle Webzine

July 2003

The troubled South American country of Colombia, flanked to the northwest by Panama, home of Rod Carew, and to the northeast by Venezuela, birthplace of Luis Aparicio, has no comparable stars in the pantheon of yanqui beisbol.

The vaunted Colombian author Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, sometimes dubbed Latin America’s answer to William Faulkner and James Joyce, hasn’t written about the sport. The politically-minded writer, who has raised some hackles in Miami by getting chummy with Fidel Castro for many years, may well have seen a ball game or two in Havana. Like most Cubaños, Castro is a huge fan, and he has often played cordial host to the Nobel-winning novelist, best known for the 1967 epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published in English in 1970.

(Of course, while the Southern-fried Faulkner did make some singular observations about golf and swimming in The Sound and the Fury, neitherhe nor Joyce wrote much about baseball, either — although the Irishman did pass droll remarks about cricket, soccer, boxing and horse racing). For literary-minded baseball fans, in light of Garcia-Marquez’s accomplishments as a writer, his omission is probably our loss as well. He and Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina are the most prominent practitioners of the literary style known as “Magical Realism,” a worldwide movement in both painting and prose fiction during the last century. In novels of this genre, the frame or surface of a work may be conventionally realistic but contrasting elements — such as the supernatural, myths, dreams and fantasy — invade the realism and change the whole basis of the literary art.

2.

North of the border, critics and academics have judged John Barth and Thomas Pyncheon the foremost American members of this literary school of thought. And while John Updike is perhaps the most critically acclaimed Big Author known for his baseball stories, the American writer first responsible for putting magical realism on the game’s literary map was Bernard Malamud.

In his 1952 novel The Natural, Malamud, son of Russian Jewish emigres, raised baseball to its rightful place in American mythology. Using the game as a point of departure, he explored what became a favorite theme for him: the search for meaning by a bewildered wanderer yearning to find the secret of life. The late Leslie Fiedler, renowned critic and scholar of modern American literature, observed that, in Malamud’s treatment of the Great American Pastime, “the modern instance and the remembered myth are equally felt.” According to Fiedler, Malamud felt no obligation to “choose between the richness of imagined detail and that of symbolic relevance,” holding that it is this quality which gives The Natural its “special authority and special richness.”

However, Malamud’s attention moved to other subjects besides baseball, and in the 50 years since The Natural was first published, W.P. Kinsella has become Bearer of the Torch — and prolifically so. “Baseball,” as the back-cover blurb for Kinsella’s latest work Magic Time notes, “is magic in the world of Kinsella,” who has written 30 books and 240 short stories, most (but not all) about the game.

Himself no stranger to cultural and political controversy, the bluntly outspoken Canadian author (b. 1935) has declared that politicians, bureaucrats, academics and the media are “all idiots” — especially his fellow writers, whom he considers “incredibly petty and jealous.”
Virulently anti-union (“they suck the blood out of the economy”) and an ardent supporter of the Reform Party, Kinsella also has scorn for baseball, the game that’s inspired some of his most successful work. “This is two groups of millionaire idiots who have no regard at all for the fans, who are the ones who pay their way,” he once remarked.

Most widely known for Shoeless Joe (1982), a novel eventually made into the film Field of Dreams, Kinsella has said that he likes to write stories that are marginally or “peripherally” about baseball, and that may be the real magic of this book, published in 2001.

Kinsella knows baseball and also knows Iowa, as he’s demonstrated in another earlier book, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986). Ostensibly about baseball, his latest novel goes to a lot of trouble to make the larger point that small-town Midwestern America is slowly dying.

Magic Time is a classic coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman centered on Mike Houle, a second baseman who starts playing Little League ball in Chicago, and after stops in Baton Rouge and Knoxville, finishes his career in the tiny Iowa city of Grand Mound.

And yet… good ‘ole country hardball isn’t the real emotional bedrock of this novel, which is much more than a baseball book. “Kinsella turns baseball into a metaphor for our obsessions and then turns that into a metaphor for life,” wrote a critic for the Dallas Morning News discussing Confederacy, and the same holds true for Magic Time, as well.

3.

Iowa, which has more small cities and towns per capita than any other state, is becoming obsessed with its own slow disappearance. Shortly after winning a three-way primary race in early June of 2002, the Republican gubernatorial candidate recited two gloomy statistics: Iowa is one of only three states experiencing a decline in population, along with North Dakota and West Virginia; while half of Iowa wagearners make less than $11 an hour, a trend exacerbated by the widespread use of cheap Mexican labor in the meatpacking and agribiz industries so central to the Iowan economy.

There is a connection, as he and his Democratic opponent both readily acknowledge, one hastening an exodus of educated young people from the state. Despite a high-quality public school system from kindergarten to grad school, Iowa does not reap what it sows, and many of its college graduates — with the begrudging agreement of their parents — see few professional opportunities outside of agronomy and insurance in-state, and they relocate accordingly.

The consequences continue to be devastating, and Kinsella is troubled by this decline of small-town Iowa (and by extension, rural America), but he reveals an even deeper concern for the decline of another, more universal American lifestyle — fatherhood.
The first chapter opens: “My father is a remarkable guy. The older I get the more remarkable I find him” The author seems to express the whimsical hope that today’s celebrity-worshipping teenaged sons can someday grow into an expanded appreciation of their seemingly-ordinary fathers.

Kinsella’s sensibilities evoke those of John Keats, who is associated with the concept of “negative capability,” which he defined as “the ability to live with uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” This great English poet of the Romantic Era didn’t write about baseball, either. However, it’s not difficult to imagine Keats appreciating the contradictions inherent in the game, one in which hitters are routinely instructed to relax and bear down, and pitchers are told by their coaches not to give ’em anything to hit — while at the same time not walking anyone!

Faithful to this spirit is Kinsella, who has said that successful writers need the sort of imagination that can “tone up the mundane and tone down the bizarre.” Like a good ballplayer, he plys his craft with a highly-calibrated balance and counterpoise, one which, as one New York Times critic wrote, “defines a world in which magic and reality combine to make us laugh and think about the perceptions we take for granted.” His newest “baseball” book is all about growing up, and the discoveries a young man makes by learning to look past unlikely appearances.

In the time-honored tradition of the waif story, our protagonist loses the security and comfort of the maternal nest at a tender age. While Mike Houle is but a toddler, he witnesses his beautiful young mother, chasing her windblown hat, getting struck and killed by a blameless motorist in front of his house. We are told:

“Dad had a married sister in Kansas City; my mother had one in Chicago and one in Milwaukee; and Grandma Palichuk lived only a ten-minute drive from us. Each of them volunteered to Byron and me, to care for us and raise us as their own.

“And some good cases were made, the best by my dad’s sister in Kansas City, my Aunt Noreen, who was married to a lawyer … had only one child, a girl … was desperate for a son, but was unable to bear any more children. No one considered for a moment that Dad might want to raise his own sons.

“But my dad… refused all their offers, even ignored Aunt Noreen, who, after being turned down threatened to sue for custody on the grounds that Dad lacked the ability to care for us properly. It was about ten years before Dad forgave his sister for that threat. He intended to look after us himself, he said.”

His father did not chose the easy path, notes his son, who recalls that there were a series of housekeepers and babysitters, some very nice, others decidedly less so. And, Kinsella seems to ask us throughout the course of the novel, what stepmother — however devoted — could have possibly taught Mike what he learned from his rumpled, self-sacrificing father, not just about baseball, but about fatherhood itself?

In one telling incident, after cutting off part of a finger in an industrial accident, Houle’s father finds it necessary reassure his badly frightened six-year-old son: “You don’t have to worry, Mike. Your dad’s never gonna leave you.”

It is generally accepted among social workers and child psychologists that parental death during early childhood leaves individuals feeling abandoned and resentful on an emotional level, despite rational thought to the contrary.

Houle grows up with neither a mother nor sister. And despite his father’s noble, even Herculean efforts, his youthful experience of the Fair Sex is correspondingly skewed. “I’ve fended for myself in the kitchen most of my life,” he tells one matronly type, who seemingly wants nothing more than to bury him with home cooking — including her charming daughter’s award-winning cherry pie. Earlier in the narrative, he recounts, “By the time I was in first grade I’d mastered the washer and the dryer, the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher.” Young Mike and his brother went to school in “clean if unironed” clothes, he recalls for us, where his teachers stared at the social oddity of two motherless boys.

He majors in business while playing baseball at LSU, and while publicly disparaging his psycholoanalytic expertise, privately, Mike has a series of insights into himself and others (although these epiphanies are, on occasion, somewhat belated). One domestic scene in the Houle’s bachelor hall, both touching and humorous, reads like an updated “Leave It to Beaver” episode. Now an adolescent, Mike and his younger brother Byron (like the poet, born with a bum foot) get “The Speech” from Dad — complete with a lesson on condom useage, demonstrated on a banana!

However, like all callow young men, Houle finds he has a great deal to learn about women on his own. He begins to see a general pattern to his early sexual forays; he wonders, at one point, why he’s so attracted to girls, flashy but dangerous, who seem to enjoy nothing so much as putting him in harm’s way. (Some brief but vividly-sketched encounters between the Fair-haired Boy and several young Femme Fatales could be seen as a filial nod from Kinsella to Malamud, who used this archetypal image as a central theme). With women, as with baseball, it seems, Mike Houle has been looking for love in all the wrong places, and ultimately the most important thing Houle has to learn about women is how to really trust one of them. But in addition to learning who — and what — he can believe, he also has to learn if he can make a living as a professional ballplayer. He has his doubts, as the burning ulcer in his stomach attests.

4.

In literature’s classic tradition, young men who grow up in books often experience a brush with an Evil Benefactor, a Fagin who teaches Oliver Twist to pick pockets, a Mephistopholes who empowers Faust to pursue his lusts. Mike Houle’s encounter with the Mysterious Stranger comes in the person of Roger Cash, baseball hustler. In the best “Music Man” tradition, Kinsella’s account of this Cadillac-driving smoothie, and how he engineers a small-town, big-money pick-up baseball game is a fully-developed short story unto itself — one which might well be titled “What a Difference Six Inches Makes.” Were not young Michael such a fundamentally sound young fellow, there would be little intrigue or suspense to this relationship, which draws tension from the fact that Gilbert Houle did indeed raise his son to be a man of character.

After graduating from high school, Mike turns down seven other scholarship offers and chooses Louisiana State, for its business faculty as much as its baseball program. There, he studies economics, psychology and statistics over the objection of his coaches, who would prefer he take “puff” courses.

Even before entering college, he’s been analytical about his own performance on the field. One day, the truth about his own seemingly-impressive stats dawns upon him: numbers don’t tell the whole truth. He is reminded of Twain’s admonition about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” when Cash confirms for him the chilling realization that “one strikeout with the bases loaded is worth ten strikeouts with two out and nobody on.”

He’s a choker.

And he’s in denial.

After graduating from college with honors, Mike turns down good job offers from IBM and AT&T in anticipation of the collegiate draft — and is passed over by every team. Desperately nursing the hope of playing pro ball in Des Moines, or Vancouver, or even Japan, he eventually accepts an offer from his agent in California (whom he’s never actually seen!) to play for a semi-pro team in the unaffiliated Cornbelt League, which he’s never read about in the pages of “Baseball America” — the same publication, by the way, which has dubbed him “the best-looking second-base man not drafted.”

Ouch.

But there’s more to the agent’s offer than meets the eye, and he soon suspects he’s been recruited to do more than play second base. He has some difficulty, though, figuring what it is. Nor, among other things, can he quite figure out if his roommate, a black shortstop of indeterminate age who talks only in his sleep, comes from a Caribbean island or inner-city Detroit. In either case, as Mike comes to see, his double-play partner clearly has some sort of mojo working.

In yet another process of de-mystification, he learns the secret behind the puzzling, self-destructive behavior of his team’s most macho player. He learns a few other things, too, albeit a half-beat late. Mike Houle is a painfully earnest sort of guy, the one who “gets” the practical joke last, leaving him with the mortifying thought that others have been laughing behind their sleeves at him.

Like Ulysses, the mythic wanderer whose world regularly crossed the magical with the practical, Mike leaves the comforts of home and hearth totest himself in the arena of battle. There, after confronting his personal demons, he must somehow find his way back. But here, saying any more risks giving away a good story, elegantly told.

Suffice it to say that the author carefully leads the reader up to an ending which can only be described as, well … magical. In a recent review of Magic Time, one wag wryly notes that “the plot itself is somewhat slow moving — but then, people say the same thing about baseball.”
Perhaps. But with both cases, such criticism is, in the final analysis, moot. Baseball is a sport without a clock, and Kinsella reminds us just how time-less America’s grand old game is. It really isn’t about time, he says — rather, it’s all a matter of distances.