OUT OF LEFT FIELD
A POX ON
THE FACE OF BASEBALL
That's author Don Delillo.
Look like a menace to you?
Writer Don DeLillo:
He's a Menace to Baseball
By STAN ISAACS
On the occasion of the recent opening of the new movie Game 6 written by the acclaimed and defamed novelist, Don DeLillo, let me refer to a passage from the first chapter of DeLillos 1997 novel, Underworld. It revolves around the game that has come to be known as The Shot Heard Round the World, Bobby Thomsons home run in the 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff classic.
FBI boss John Edgar Hoover was at the game, so DeLillos overly ripe imagination has Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and the boorish restauranteur Toots Shor sitting with him in the Polo Grounds.
Immediately after Thomson hits the climactic home run, DeLillo pens this description:
Jackie [Gleason] utters an aquatic bark, it is loud and crude, the hoarse call of some mammal in distress. Then the surge of flannel matter. He seems to be vomiting someones taupe pajamas. The waste is liquidy smooth in the lingo of adland and it is splashing freely on Franks stout oxford shoes and fine lisle hose and on the soft woven wool of his town-and-country trousers.
As if that isnt enough, he goes on later: Frank persists in looking down. He allows one foot to list to port so he can examine the side of his shoe for vomit marks. And, Says Gleason, Dont think youre the first friend I ever puked on. I puked on better men than you. Consider yourself honored.
If it is possible to desecrate the memory of a great baseball game, DeLillo has done it. As one who was at that game, who treasures the sight of Thomson hitting that home run as one of the dearest moments in an adult lifetime of covering sports, I am appalled by the juxtaposition of the celebrities fouling the pages and my memory. I say DeLillo is a blackguard, a wretch, a disgrace, a good-for-nothing miscreant and more than anything else, a fraud.
With that first chapter in Underworld he traded on a momentous sports event to attract attention. He polluted the Bobby Thomson game and now he has done it again with the movie, Game 6. He uses the Mets victory over the Red Sox in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series--the Bill Buckner game--as a canvas for some ditherings about a neurotic playwright avoiding the tension of the opening night of his new play by watching the Mets-Sox game on a television set in a bar in New York City. When he isnt writhing about his play, he is riding in taxis in the city.
As with DeLillos novel writing, the movie is liked by some critics. Boston Globe critic Ty Burr says it is painfully good a small, lovingly, overwritten, comic drama about fate, failure and primal longing. I prefer Chelsea Bain of the Boston Heralds This strange and contrived tale of self-reflection and sappy inner peace gets increasingly more bizarre.
Ill note that one critic has called DeLillo The great American novelist. And that another has described him as, Americas greatest unread author.
I dont care what the critics think of him. I just wish hed attend to his artistry without having to rely on the built-in interest of great baseball games to whet peoples interest.
Ill grant he is an avid baseball fan and has done the research. Aside from putting the louts Gleason & Co. at the game, he has some good moments. After wading through waves in Underworld of what H.L. Mencken used to call, fustian and whim wham, we read, Look at Durocher on the dugout steps, manager of the Giants, hard-rock Leo, the gashouse scrapper, a face straight from the Gallic wars And [Jackie] Robinson calls time and walks the ball to the mound in the pigeon-toed gait that makes his path seem crooked.
There is this paean: Thats the thing about baseball You do what they did before you. Thats the connection you make. Theres a whole long line. A man takes his kid to a game and 30 years later this is what they talk about when the poor mutts wasting away in the hospital.
Through all the muck DeLillo has the nifty idea of creating a kid who finds the home-run ball hit into the left field stands by Thomson. And he also has a good idea in the movie, Game 6 but he fritters it away. When the playwright (Michael Keaton) sees Buckner let the ball go through him, he has a vision of Buckner actually fielding the ground ball for a putout. But that moment is fleeting and then we get back to the characters tiresome angst.
DeLillo wrote the story in 1997 and the movie was made in 2004, so it loses much of its impact because of the Red Sox triumph later that year. The fanatic Red Sox fan playwright knows the Red Sox will lose--they will always lose--but that doom-and-gloom attitude was washed away by the Red Sox fabled 2004 run, the come-from-behind defeat of the Yankees in the playoffs and a World Series triumph.
I worry what would happen if DeLillo turned his attention to Carl Hubbell striking out five straight Hall of Fame batters in the 1934 All Star game, or Curt Gibsons winning home run that turned around the 1988 World Series, or, say, the Philadelphia Athletics 10-run seventh inning in the fourth game of the 1929 Series.
And if DeLillo is the great American novelist, I fear what is becoming of the novel.
©2006 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted March 27, 2006.
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