The final novel in the Henry Wiggen series starts with a death and ends with a brand new life. But “It Looked Like For Ever” is not really about life or death – or baseball, for that matter. I think it’s about motive.
“It Looked Like For Ever” is substantially different from the first three in the Wiggen series: “The Southpaw,” “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “A Ticket for a Seamstitch.” In each of those, Mark Harris’ narrator spends most of his time talking about one baseball season (1952 in “Southpaw,” 1955 in “Drum” and 1956 in “Seamstitch”). But most of “For Ever” takes place during the off-season. And it doesn’t pick up a year or two after the last book; “For Ever” is set in the early 1970s, at the end of Henry Wiggen’s playing career.
But the book still has lots of humor mixed with profoundly touching moments. In fact, this may be the funniest book in the series, and the saddest except for “Bang the Drum Slowly.” And Henry still narrates in his down-home vernacular, which comes across even more down-home in this book, if that’s possible.
The book starts out with Henry hearing that his long-time manager, Dutch Schnell, has died. Always a little bit on the selfish side, Henry’s first thought is that he would replace Dutch as manager of the New York Mammoths (Holly, his wife, reminds him to mourn first). But Henry is blackballed by Mammoths owner Patricia Moors, and a lesser man is named manager. And, Wiggen finds out that Dutch is cursing him from the grave; the last words he spoke in life were derogatory against Henry.
Not only does he miss out on the manager job, but he’s given his outright release by the Mammoths after a 19-year career as one of the best pitchers in the game.
I forgot to mention something: since we last heard from Henry in “Seamstitch,” his family has grown significantly. He now has four daughters, the youngest of whom, Hilary, struggles with behavioral issues. Whenever she gets upset, she issues an ear-splitting scream that lasts for ever.
When Hilary finds out that her father has been released, and she realizes she won’t ever see him play big-league ball like all her sisters have, she screams.
And it’s here where the novel made me re-think an opinion or two I’ve long held about athletes. I’ve often groaned about Brett Favre wanting to come back and play “just one more year,” or Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds trying to hang on. I guess I’ve always assumed their motives were less than pure. But you can’t really know a person’s motives for anything, can you?
Henry Wiggen decides that he’s going to get on with a team again so his last daughter can see him play.
That’s a pretty damn impressive motive, if you ask me.
Wiggen’s quest to play takes him to Japan, where he’s asked not only to help build a baseball team but also an entire city; to Washington, where a manager backpedals from his promise to give Henry a job; and to California, where an owner believes the ONLY appropriate motivation to play is $$$.
The reader keeps wondering whether Henry will ever pitch again. At one point I was positive I knew the answer. I was wrong.
It’s a great book. In some ways, maybe the best in the series, and a fitting end to the Henry Wiggen saga.