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Book Review: Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris

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With the World Series getting underway, it seemed a good time to do a little baseball related reading other than the kind of stuff you find in Sports Illustrated and on the daily newspapers’ sports pages. Having just finished Joe Torre’s latest double team effort, I’d had my fill of the “inside story as told to” brand of opus, and non-fiction, in general, was something less than appealing. What I really wanted was a good old fashioned baseball yarn. I remembered the John R. Tunis books I’d read as a boy. I thought about The Natural. I thought about Shoeless Joe and what happened to it on the big screen. What I wanted was something like these: a good story with some meat on the bones.

What I came up with was Mark Harris’s fifty year old novel, Bang the Drum Slowly. The irony that both Harris in the epigraph he chose for his book and the narrator, whose nickname just happens to be “Author,” take the position that while the story may be about baseball players, the book is not merely about baseball, perhaps not even really about baseball. And they are right. Harris’s epigraph from Wright Morris points out that a “book can have Chicago in it, and not be about Chicago. It can have a tennis player in it without being about a tennis player.” In the novel itself, there is a scene where one of the wiser old heads reads some of what the “Author” has written, and then acutely comments: “And even the people that read it will think it is about baseball or some such stupidity as that. . . .” And he is spot on: the last thing Bang the Drum Slowly is about is any such stupidity as that.

Bang the Drum Slowly is about man’s mortality. It is about how to go on living in the face of death. Death, after all, is endemic to the human condition; it is the fate that awaits us all. Yet for the most part, it is something that we never really spend much time thinking about. It is something off in the distant future. Even as we approach nearer and nearer, it seems to recede beyond our thoughts. What happens, however, when death intrudes and we are forced to face our mortality? When Henry “Author” Wiggin, the star southpaw of the New York Mammoths learns that his best friend on the team, scrub catcher, Bruce Pearson, has Hodgkin’s Disease and has only months to live, death becomes a stark reality is his young life. Death and his friend become his obsession.

“Author” is a young man in his twenties with everything going for him. He is a fine athlete. He has a beautiful, intelligent wife, who is pregnant with his first child. He has written a book, and he sells insurance to supplement his baseball income and prepare him for life after baseball. He is well liked by his teammates, and even those that he plays against. He has a perfect life, and then he crashes up against the truth that life is not always so perfect for everyone when he gets a call from his friend asking him to come get him at a hospital in Minnesota. The good life can change — and change quickly.

Unlike “Author,” Bruce has little in his life but baseball. He is a country boy from rural Georgia, and he is far from the brightest bulb in the chandelier. More often than not, he is the butt of his teammates’ ragging and pranks, and usually he is too dumb to know that he is being ridiculed. He is in love with the madam of a high class whore house, who only agrees to marry him when she learns he is dying and that he has a hefty insurance annuity to leave to his heir. To top it off, he isn’t even a very good catcher. What he is, is good natured. He is one of God’s simpletons, but he is one whom God it seems has forsaken. All he has is baseball, and “Author” knows that if the members of the team hierarchy find out about his sickness, they’ll be forced to let him go. There is only one thing to do — keep it secret, go on with the season, and keep the truth from everyone.

Bang the Drum Slowly goes on to tell the story of that baseball season beginning with spring training. It is a season of baseball very much different from the baseball we know today. Set in 1955, there are no steroids; there are no player’s agents, no television saturation. There are pills — green ones, yellow — but the players who take them are convinced they are simply placebos. This is the baseball of double headers on the holidays, ladies’ days, and twenty thousand dollar annual contracts. Babe Ruth is still the man to beat and sixty, the magic number to shoot for. The book is a brown tinted snapshot of a sport long since gone, if not always lamented.

Nostalgia aside, perhaps the most effective element of the book is its narrative voice. The author’s “Author” speaks in the vernacular; his voice has the ring of authenticity. He sounds like a ballplayer. He has the jargon. Moreover, he is not above an error or two in the use of the language. After all as a star pitcher, he’s “in titled.” “Author” is a voice in the tradition of the great first person narrators; he’s a Huck Finn in a baseball uniform. Like Huck, he has his flaws, but like Huck, by the book’s end, there isn’t a reader who isn’t caught in his spell.

Mark Harris has written a modern classic. Just in case any of the games in the Series gets out of hand, you may want to find yourself a copy of Bang the Drum Slowly so you can read a few chapters. You won’t regret it.

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