Sunday, May 17, 2009

Novel notes: "Bang the Drum Slowly," Part 1

After my review of "The Southpaw," I quickly realized I left a lot of important, pivotal information out that I just couldn't squeeze into a reasonable-length review. Luckily, John came along afterward and added his thoughts about Henry Wiggen's decision to throw a spitball, his relationship with Holly and the deeper meaning of Henry's cowardess.

It's just too much to cram everything into one piece. So in the future, I'm going to break up my thoughts into a handful of posts, culminating in a final review. In that spirit, here's some of my introductory thoughts on "Bang the Drum Slowly."

Whenever I think of the second book in Mark Harris' Wiggen series, I can't help but picture Lou Gehrig.

In "Bang the Drum Slowly," narrated by Wiggen, New York Mammoths third-string catcher Bruce Pearson finds out he's dying from Hodgkin's Disease. Only Henry and Holly know the truth, and Bruce plays his final season with the knowledge that his body is broken and he's not long for the earth.

As a player, Bruce Pearson is nothing like Lou Gehrig. Pearson is basically Bob Uecker without the sense of humor. Gehrig, of course, is one of the greatest ballplayers in the history of the game.

But the two players, one real and one fictional, share a similar fate. Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS - Lou Gehrig's Disease - in 1939, at the peak of his career, and was dead two years later at the age of 38.

I've always been fascinated by Gehrig. He played second fiddle his entire career, first to Babe Ruth and then to Joe DiMaggio, even though Gehrig won the MVP award in 1927 (when Ruth cracked 60 home runs) and 1936 (DiMaggio's rookie season).

But I think Gehrig's most astounding season was 1938. His statistics were respectable by any standards (except maybe his own): .295 average, 29 home runs, 114 runs batted in. What makes these numbers amazing is that Gehrig started feeling the effects of ALS, a degenerative muscle disease, that year.

Think about that: Lou Gehrig put up all-star caliber numbers while dying from an illness that caused his muscles to atrophy.

Gehrig's story was likely an influence for Harris; both Gehrig and Pearson were diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and both players struggled with their failing bodies in their last seasons.

More later about this touching novel.

--Matt Kelsey

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