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Book Report: The Thrill of the Grass

Your Humble Blogger is a pretty big W.P. Kinsella fan, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising that I liked the collection The Thrill of the Grass (NY: Penguin 1985). I liked some stories more than others, of course. “The Battery” is a terrific example of the sort of thing people call his magical realism; it’s right up there with the Baseball Wolf in my favorites. It’s goofy, sure, but its goofiness works; the goofiness in “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon” and “How I Got My Nickname” doesn’t, so much. Mostly, though, this collection is like the stuff of his I don’t like quite so much, the quiet stories of bush-leaguers (in more than one sense) and their girlfriends, stories of love, usually, and of love gone, and of love gone sour. “Nursie” and “Driving toward the Moon” and even “The Firefighter” belong in that category; it’s not a category of stories I seek out on a regular basis. Heck, I’ll usually skip them in the New Yorker. These have, usually, just enough baseball to slip me into their world, and I like them all right, once I’m there.

The best story in the collection is the title one, though, a perfect evocation of being a baseball fan in the world. Mr. Kinsella can squeeze out the sweet disappointment of baseball better than anyone I’ve ever read; not only the disappointment of losing, but the disappointment of growing up and not being Mickey Mantle, and even the disappointment of growing up and finding out what the Mick was really like.

It’s set during the midsummer of 1981, and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, or even for those of you who haven’t read it for years. It isn’t really about the plot, anyway, it’s about the “ritual for true believers”, about the oddly magnificent, simple liturgy of baseball. It’s about how things always used to be, and how much baseball is a part of that myth. “Baseball is meant to be played on summer evenings and Sunday afternoon, on grass just cut by a horse-drawn mower,” says one of the characters, and I sympathize with his stupid, reactionary, imaginary, ahistorical nonsense, because I want that to be how baseball is meant to be played. Not really, not when I’m thinking about it, any more than I want a just, wise king.

Or, one supposes, any more than the fellow in the other story really wanted his father to come back from the dead and have a catch.