Monday, May 4, 2009

Book review: "The Southpaw"

Believe it or not, this is our 100th post on the Henry Wiggen Blog!

For me (and I think I can speak for John), this has been a blast. We've even developed a bit of a following, which is amazing. Thanks so much for reading, and here's hoping the next hundred are even better.

I can't think of a more appropriate topic for the 100th post than the review of "The Southpaw." After all, Mark Harris' book is the first to introduce the world to Henry Wiggen.

In "The Southpaw," Wiggen, the novel's narrator, is coming off his first full season with the New York Mammoths. The reader doesn't know right away why Wiggen is even writing a book, but we know it has something to do with a journalist named Krazy Kress and a column Wiggen refers to frequently as "hogwash" and other such adjectives. Wiggen seems to think that good writers never use contractions, and except for when he's quoting someone else's writing, there's not a single contraction in the book (please ignore the fact that I used three contractions in that sentence alone).

A young, promising pitcher from Perkinsville, New York, Wiggen in 1950 earns himself a measly contract to play for the Mammoths. Wiggen lives with his father, also a pitcher, and next door to family friend Aaron and Aaron's niece, Holly. Henry is a strange mixture of cocky and cowardly. He has a truckload of confidence and believes himself to be the second coming of his idol, Sad Sam Yale (and he's not shy about telling anybody). But he also gets physically ill whenever he thinks about getting in a fight or being drafted into the Army:

Every time I ever been in a fight I usually always just covered up and left this other chap, whoever he was, just whale away at my wrists and elbows and the spaces between. Pretty soon somebody would break it up. Just to see 2 guys fighting makes me weak. When I was a senior at Perkinsville High we had this military training where the class would split into 2 groups and fight over Callahan Hill in the lot on Callahan Avenue with bayonets with boxing gloves on the end. We must of fought this fight 100 times and I was always the first 1 killed. Not killed really, but I would just lay down and die, too week to fight, crouching around until somebody stabbed me with a boxing glove. The fellows used to call this my Coward Crouch. Actually the trouble was it give me loose bowels and how in the hell can you go on fighting with loose bowels?...This used to bother Pop a lot, but Aaron said to Pop, "Why should it bother you? Is it not better for a fellow to go down in his Coward Crouch and live to fight another day?" and pop said he supposed it was.

After he's signed by the Mammoths, Wiggen goes to Spring Training in Aqua Clara and meets up with some of the players who would become his best friends over the next couple years, including Perry Simpson, a black second baseman who becomes Wiggen's roommate (which gives opposing teams something to taunt Wiggen about). And Henry also meets some of his idols, including Sad Sam Yale, who (of course) does not live up to his heroic image.

Wiggen spends two seasons in the Mammoths' minor league system before getting a late-season call-up to pitch one inning in relief for the big league team. That one inning helps earn Wiggen a spot on the 1952 Mammoths roster and a turn as the Opening Day starter.

If "The Southpaw" has one flaw, it's that the saga of that 1952 season drags on too long (well over half the novel). But that's actually a pretty accurate portrayal of a baseball season; it drags on and on, especially in the hot months of July and August.

Wiggen is a rookie sensation, and the Mammoths are the team to beat in the league. But it's a race to the wire, and Wiggen is a critical piece of the puzzle. Near the end of the season, though, Wiggen starts to feel pain in his back, made even worse by the hopes of the Mammoths resting squarely on his young shoulders.

I've read the classic American fiction books, from "To Kill A Mockingbird" to Twain, from Hemingway to Salinger, from Pearl S. Buck to "The Pearl."

But then, here's this humble baseball novel, written in 1953, by a little-known author.
So my final review of this book, in the world of literature, in probably blasphemous (although faithful readers might say we've been blasphemous for the last 99 posts):

Mark Harris' "The Southpaw" is about as close to the Great American Novel as you're ever likely to find.

This book is a masterpiece - by baseball standards or otherwise. It has a little bit of everything - it tells an epic story, it's funny, it's packed with drama and tension - all told through the beautifully simple and elegant storytelling style of Henry Wiggen.

Mark Harris died two years ago this month. But Henry Wiggen will live on forever. The four books in the Wiggen series are an appropriate legacy for a truly brilliant author.

--Matt Kelsey

1 comment:

  1. Matt, I've been fascinated with this book since I first read it. In fact, I re-read it this spring. It was like playing catch with an old friend. I think it is particularly interesting if you view it in historical context: The concept of the flawed (and realistic) hero in the wake of WWII. We may be in store for more such heroes in reaction to our current times where the word hero has begun to lose meaning as it slips into sugary sentiment again.

    Henry's pacifism is more important than it seems at first blush. I think the book turns on Henry's decision late in the season, when the pressure is really on, to let loose a spit ball which accidentally beans a hitter. His family is brutally honest about their disappointment in him -- the passages really sting. And Henry realizes something important about what it is to be a man. (I remember beaning a kid on purpose as a teenager, watching the kid collapse into the ground, feeling something break inside me...) I don't know if Harris was already thinking about the rest of the series, but you could make a case for this incident being a fulcrum for Henry's entire fictional career.

    We need a little more of this in modern baseball. Nobody seems to think ethically in the game today. Nobody seems to consider what it is to be a man (in the non-gender sense), to be true and loyal, to play the game with respect, and to leave everything on the field. I'm afraid modern players would find Henry's fulcrum terribly naive.

    And, what do you make of Red Traphagen's role? Is he a stand-in for Harris?