Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Ticket for a Seamstitch is a perfect little novel, don't pass it by as most critics and reviewers have

"A Ticket for a Seamstitch" is exactly the right length for the idea. This is something to be admired in a writer. Such brevity may have been born of necessity, as Harris and Matt point out, but it is, nonetheless, perfect for a perfect little story.

Like all of Mark Harris' baseball novels, this 1956 offering is, at bottom, about growth. This Aristotelian idea is one of the reasons I find his novels endearing. I need to know, even on the downhill side of life, that growth is still possible. Why else take batting practice in a drizzle on Sunday morning when most people are just opening the Sunday paper or finishing breakfast and getting ready for church?

Ok, so if you press me, I'll tell you I did go to church Sunday morning. The grass was deep green and wet and the fence was two-hundred-eighty-five feet, or so, and the sermon was short and sweet, like "A Ticket for a Seamstitch."

Growth, the possibility of growth, is the beauty of these novels. Here, a fan, a seamstress, has written Henry a letter in "marvelous handmanship" of tiny letters yet extremely clear; a long letter which threatens to tell him the history of every brick in every building on the square of her small town "out West." Sewn to the letter is a ten dollar bill. The bill, he finds out later, is for tickets to a Mammoth game on July 4th.

In a neat twist on Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, (Thanks Dr. Judith Lofflin...) the letters are answered by Piney Woods, the new "green punk" catcher of the Mammoths. Piney Woods is a wonderful construction, with an even better name. (From the real life file, we had two janitors at the community center where I worked after college. One was a feisty 90-year-old black man named Mr. White and the other was a genial fellow named Forest Green.)

Piney Woods is a hot shot catcher with way more on his mind than calling a good game. He is an artist of motorcycles and pinup girls, drawings he sticks to the hotel wall "by friction." His guitar, famous from "Bang the Drum Slowly," is also hung on the wall. He is young and inexperienced, a green punk for sure, and he has a long way to go. Henry finds him especially exasperating, being himself a 1/4 -century-old veteran.

Piney takes over correspondence with the seamstress who he imagines in fine pinup drawings fastened to the wall with friction. But when she arrives in New York for real, she is anything but the objects of his imagination. And, like the green punk he is, he dumps her in Henry's lap. Henry does not want her, but his basic humanity guides his action. He treats her to a fine evening in one of the latest technological developments of the 1950s, a lunch counter consisting only of vending machines, a nickle a pop.

In this small moment, Henry becomes more the man he was meant to be. Even Piney Woods finds an element of growth here. It was Cyrano's nose which he feared would make him unlovable by the beautiful woman of his dreams. The seamstress did not look like the woman of either Mammoths' dreams but they found, inside her, what they were looking for. If you think this is a small finding, look around and notice what our obsession with the appearance of things (from women and men to presidents, dictators and automobiles) has done to our world 1/2 of a century later.

Lofflin -- suggesting this link to you if you are interested in the sweep of baseball fiction. In 1981 Daniel Okrent made out a lineup of baseball novels which is today a great starting point. Okrent wrote a terrific piece of non-fiction "Nine Innings" and served during a tumultuous time as public editor at the hot corner of the New York Times.

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