Monday, September 24, 2012

In Praise of Brittle Innings

I have always loved baseball books, and am delighted at the reprinting of Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings by Fairwood Press.  Beautifully packaged and presented, this edition is a worthy addition to your library if you are fond of historical fiction, fantasy, coming-of-age tales, and/or baseball. 
About baseball: people who malign the sport for being “slow and boring” do not understand its character.  It is a vehicle of lore, a mythic country where the gods roam the outfield and the legends gather: the colossal home runs from Ruth to Reggie, the game-winning blasts by Mazeroski, Fisk, and Gibson, the wounded kings like Tony Conigliaro and Herb Score (figures straight out of Frazer’s Golden Bough: if you don’t believe me, check the history), the strange recluses like Koufax and Carlton, alone and retiring (sometimes literally) at the height of glory.  But it is more than celebrity, than the on-field arĂȘte: it is the sandlot game of my childhood, playing catch with Carl Williams (who was no athlete but was an all-star father), and brushing against all that continuity and lore.
We have a fine tradition of baseball novels.  Usually the good ones tend toward the mythic (Malamud’s The Natural, Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, Philip Roth’s Great American Novel), but these sometimes fail to capture the feel of the game, its tactile crouch at shortstop, the smell of neatsfoot oil on a new glove, the leisure of innings in the field.  For that, you go to Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly, but when you go there, you do it at the sacrifice of the mythic undertones and overtones so wonderful in the other books. 
What I guess I’m getting at is the ambition of Brittle Innings, which tries to do all the things a baseball novel does and succeeds famously for the most part.
Daniel Boles, our narrator, is introduced early, but not immediately; we begin with a sportswriter’s search for Boles, then launch into the focal story.  Fifty pages in, I was wondering why Bishop had begun with a framed narrative, but you should give baseball novels some slack: their best vehicle is the long, meandering 19th-century-novel way of telling, and eventually the book comes around when you merge with the story, then, much later, come to understand the device at the book’s outset. 
At any rate, the book follows Boles and his mysterious roommate, Jumbo Clerval, through a season in the 1940s minors, when pro baseball was peopled with athletes who would have never made a career (minimal though it was) had it not been for much of the talent on the rosters being deployed to the European and Pacific Theatres of the war.  The book unfolds slowly as a kind of Huck-Finn-meets-Dizzy-Dean account, consistently entertaining and darkening effectively as the reader begins to realize that there is something about Jumbo Clerval…
No spoilers here.  As a matter of fact, the mid-book revelation did not surprise me, but I did not care in the least.  Brittle Innings is not so much heart-poundingly plotted as it is slowly unfolding, an impressive mixture of genre-crossing and simple good read.  Buy the ticket, fans:  there are box seats here with good views of both foul poles, and the players are waiting.  Brittle Innings is my pick this month, just like Rose Streif’s Bearkeeper was last month out.  Get them both.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Falling in Love Again...with THE BLUE ANGEL

It's been almost 30 years since I last saw Josef von Sternberg's Blue Angel (1930).  Based on Heinrich Mann's novel, Professor Unrat, At the time it was all about Marlene Dietrich--famous as the film's Lola, singing "Falling in Love Again" with that husky contralto.  Lola is beautiful, marmoreal and heartless, and the only thing more foolish than falling for her would be...well, not falling.

Enter Emil Jannings as Professor Unrat, a middle-aged, dumpy lecturer at the local university (I know, the possibilities for my identification with the character seem endless, right?). His surname is actually 'Rath', but he is called 'Unrat' (German for 'filth' or 'garbage') by his students, who range between deferential (standing when he enters the classroom--something I'd never expect) and shouting names at him in public (something that hasn't happened to me...yet). The film is his story--his enamored, obsessive pursuit of the lovely and much younger Lola, which ends up in his humiliation and death.  The film, or so I have read, speaks to the Weimar Republic's contempt for its intellectual class, but of course the professor is the embodiment of the bourgeois intellectual, a figure adored by the complacent middle class of the times and held in contempt by the artists, the bohemians, and (in a strange wedding of hatreds) the rising far Right in Germany at the time.

In short, Professor Unrat gets what he deserves, though we are sorry he does.   Through it all, I am struck by Emil Jannings, who made his name as a silent film star (The Last Laugh, Waxworks, Tartuffe, Faust), usually in a comic, fleshy, leering role--his generation's Sydney Greenstreet or Victor Buono, but with the chops to carry a lead actor's role.  And here he is in the talkies, wandering streets in which Dr. Caligari meets Antoni Gaudi, speaking in a strange but fitting tenor voice, running the gamut of gesture and facial expression from endearing to ridiculous to the genuinely tragic.  The Blue Angel is his film, and his performance is what I carried away--disturbing me, moving me, making me think of the passing years.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Back for the Duration

 After a long absence, I'm returning to give blogging a try.

I've always felt that this was a kind of working overtime, a spinning of wheels that took up energies and focus better used in my fiction, because I am easily distracted, drawn away from more pressing pursuits by tunneling thoughts, by issues over which I have neither control nor power, ideas for books that deflect me from remembering that damn it, I'm already writing another/  Even a song or a bright color can be enough to derail me.

So the blog will center on its new title--an idea large and broad enough to take in ramblings and distractions.And here's one:

I've been going to a lot of conventions lately.  Sitting on a number of panels, or present in the room when panels transpired.  What I'm getting is an odd shift in the focus of some writers--perhaps a reflection of the much-touted "change in the publishing industry", but ultimately, something I may be too old to buy into.  Because it seems that a lot of us are becoming marketers first, writers second.  I have even seen some writers--people I like, don't get me wrong--proclaiming that "if you think of your writing as art, think again" (yes, a direct quote!).

Well, I'm sorry, but I do.  Maybe it's not great art.  Maybe not even good.  But if I were in this for the business, I'd be trying to make money on the enterprise.  I'd be in hedge funds or derivatives, which I understand is where the money is.

Actually, I just like saying "hedge funds" and "derivatives," having no earthly idea what such things are. 

What I do know is that there is a specific craft to the kind of thing writers do and that sometimes, out of diligence and chance or grace, that craft can rise to what has been traditionally called art. Yes, I attend conventions and try to make sales, but I'll let you in on a secret: my first novel sold a million copies worldwide, and I still get small royalty surprises in the mail, but it is not my most satisfying work or experience as a novelist.  I still like Weasel's Luck and think it's a good book, but I have done work since that pleases me more and is a greater source of pride.  If I had to choose between Weasel's Luck's sales and what I believe I did in books like Arcady or Trajan's Arch or Vine, I'd rest content with the lesser profit.  Because of these priorities I must keep a day job, but I'm happy with the day job as well.  Telling stories is serious business, even if you're paid in other stories.