Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book review: "Bang the Drum Slowly"

Before we started this blog, "Bang the Drum Slowly" is probably the only reason you'd even heard of Henry Wiggen.

I think it's safe to say the second book in the series is by far the most famous of the four-book story arc (with "The Southpaw" running a distant second). "Bang" received tremendous reviews, not only as a great baseball book but as a well-written and touching piece of fiction. It also became the only book in the Wiggen series to spawn a movie, starring Michael Moriarty as Wiggen and an unknown young actor as Bruce Pearson. The unknown actor became something of a star.

Quick aside: I once heard a wise man (who happens to be the co-author of this blog) say Robert De Niro was an uninspired choice to play Bruce Pearson. De Niro is not built like a ballplayer at all, and in many of the movie's scenes, he looks like he's a good foot shorter than Moriarty and the other actors portraying ballplayers. He may not look the part, but I think De Niro knocked the role out of the park. Maybe his role here set the tone for his career; less than a year later, De Niro made us an offer we couldn't refuse, starring as young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.)

So Robert De Niro and the movie brought Wiggen into the public eye. But "Bang the Drum Slowly" is a phenomenal novel in its own right.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" picks up a few years after "The Southpaw" leaves off. New York Mammoths pitcher Henry Wiggen gets a phone call from Rochester, Minnesota, informing him that Bruce Pearson, the Mammoths' third-string catcher and Wiggen's roommate, is sick. The doctors in Rochester say Pearson has Hodgkin's Disease, and could die at any time. Wiggen and Pearson keep the news to themselves (although Henry shares with his wife, Holly.)

Henry is holding out for more money before the start of the 1955 season, but he strikes a deal with the Mammoths ownership that ties him and Pearson together - if one gets traded, they both get traded. That way, Henry can take care of Bruce and call a doctor when "the attack" comes.

Throughout the book, Mammoths manager Dutch Schnell works to figure out why Wiggen would request such an unusual clause, even hiring a private eye. Eventually Dutch finds out, and despite Henry's best efforts, all the rest of the Mammoths do, too. And while the Mammoths chase the pennant, Bruce's health deteriorates, even as his baseball abilities skyrocket.

There's a very clear moral to this story. Before his teammates find out, Bruce is constantly the butt of the joke; he's ragged by everybody, and he's often too slow-witted to figure out he's being ragged. But the teammates treat Bruce like their best friend when they discover his terminal illness. Wiggen says everybody is dying; Bruce is just doing it a little faster. So why rag anybody?

It's difficult for an author to pull off a novel with such a cut-and-dry moral lesson without the book becoming pure corn. But Mark Harris does it.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" is about dying, and it's about wrestling with fate, and it's about friendship, and just a little bit, in the dark corners, it's about baseball. It's a hundred pages shorter than "The Southpaw," which keeps it from dragging in the middle, but it still feels like a fully fleshed-out tale.

If "The Southpaw" is the baseball version of the Great American Novel, "Bang the Drum Slowly" is the classic American story.

--Matt Kelsey


  1. I enjoyed reading this. I didn't know there were 3 other novels in the series. Anyhow, beautifully written. Thanks.

  2. I read Bang the Drum Slowly four times before I realized that The Southpaw actually existed. I thought it was just part of Harris's great fiction. At this point in time, I've read The Southpaw just once but Bang the Drum Slowly thirteen times, and counting.

  3. Just read it again for the umpteenth time. With each reading it is even better than I remembered. Thanks, Matt, for the post. I too believe this book to be a classic of American literature.

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