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.