Thursday, July 24, 2008

One Nightstand: Shoeless Joe

Baseball and the American Identity
Shoeless Joe is the 1982 novel by W. P. Kinsella about the place of baseball in the American identity. (to see the book at amazon, click here: Shoeless Joe) The hero of the story is Ray Kinsella, a young Iowa farmer who is driven by a recurring voice to build a baseball field in his corn field. Magically, the long-dead members of the Chicago “Black Sox”, who had been banned from the game for conspiring with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series, begin using his field for pick-up games. Upon the further urging of the voice, Kinsella undertakes a journey across the eastern United States in which he collects several other characters to join the fantastic spectacle at his farm.
Basis for Field of Dreams
Shoeless Joe became the basis for the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. The novel and film are thematically similar, though the film makes Ray’s relationship with his father more central to the plot than the novel. The most notable differences occur in the characters which are eliminated or modified in the transition from page to screen. Ray and his family survive the transition intact, as does Moonlight Graham, the young player who appeared in only one major league game in 1905. Eddie “Kid” Scissons, the oldest living Chicago Cub, and Richard Kinsella, Ray’s twin brother are eliminated. In the movie Ray kidnaps the reclusive author of the “Boat Rockers” Terrence “Terry” Mann, and in the novel he kidnaps J. D. “Jerry” Salinger, reclusive author of “Catcher in the Rye”.
Commentary on the novel often emphasizes the theme of redemption. All the characters which come to the farm are suffering under a burden they bear. Richard Kinsella suffers because of his teenaged rejection of his father. J. D. Salinger suffers because of his denial of his love of baseball. Eddie “Kid” Scissons suffers because he has maintained a lie about playing with the Chicago Cubs. As the novel ends, others begin to arrive at the farm, magically drawn by the redemptive promise of baseball.
American Pastoral Character
Some have criticized the novel for too closely placing baseball at the center of the American soul. The novel seems to do this and perhaps this criticism is justified. More important to the novel is the pastoral theme which is part of the origin myth shared by both baseball and America: that the simplicity, innocence and naturalism of rural life can have spiritual effects. In the novel, Ray has been saved by his love of the land and is resisting the absorption of his land into a conglomerated computer-controlled farming system. Baseball more broadly provides this pastoral redemption because it originates in pre-industrial America and is mythically the sport of farm boys. This pastoralism provides a more stable linkage for the novel between baseball, the American identity, and redemption.
Magical Realism
Shoeless Joe is a rare example of a popular American novel using the devices associated with magical realism. Magical realism typically portrays a real-world setting which is magically intruded upon by highly implausible characters or events. This device has been adopted successfully in other cultures because of its ability to bring into play both the external manifestations of identity and their more mythical, folkloric origins. Magical realism has had limited appeal in the US, which tends to prefer works which are clearly fiction, science fiction, or non-fiction.
Kinsella Becomes His Own Character
Kinsella was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1935. He remained in Canada until the mid-1970’s when he joined the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Kinsella has that insight into American culture which only English-speaking Canadians are able to achieve.
Kinsella became disillusioned with baseball after the 1994 players strike. In 1997 Kinsella was severely injured after being struck by a car. The resulting neurological damage ended his writing career. Kinsella has become one of his own characters, now in need of redemption.
For the Wikipedia article on Kinsella, click here.
For the interview with Kinsella on his injury, click here.
Bookrags provides a lot of information on the novel for free (click here), the complete article is available for a fee.