Down in Johnson County, Iowa, a land of square frame houses and “sun-blonde girls,” the damnedest things happen. Hollyhocks sing “like a freshly scrubbed barbershop quartet.” A baseball player is killed by
a lightning bolt and is eventually replaced by a bronze statue called the Black Angel, who catches with one wing and bats nearly .300. Welcome to the world of W.P. Kinsella, a place rich in magic, myth and metaphor. In his second novel, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, the Canadian writer returns to the scene and quirky vision of his much —praised first novel, Shoeless Joe. And, of course, he returns to baseball, like a pensioner going back to the old ball park. Yet, while Kinsella recreates many of his own best effects—the warmth and whimsy, the refreshing faith in the power of love and obsession—the second time, almost inevitably, is just not as good as the first.
The new novel revolves around Gideon Clarke, an Iowan who inherited
his father’s peculiar quest—to prove that the world-champion Chicago Cubs played an exhibition game against the all-stars from an amateur league named the Iowa Baseball Confederacy in July, 1908. And not just any exhibition game, but one that lasted more than 2,000 innings in torrential rains that finally washed away the entire Iowa town. But there is no record of the game or the flood, or even of the fact that the town, Onamata, used to be called Big Inning. All those facts, Gideon believes, somehow vanished through cracks in time and were known only to his father and himself. “Time,” Gideon’s father had told him, “is out of kilter here in Johnson County. But if something is out of kilter there’s no reason it can’t be fixed. And when it’s fixed I’ll be proven right.”
Gideon’s father was killed—by a line drive while sitting in the stands — before he could be vindicated. But Gideon has more luck. He and his friend Stan, an over-the-hill minor-league ballplayer, manage to slip through one of those 1 cracks in time and find ° the big game. They also I find romance and an influential Indian named Drifting Away. There are even cameo appearances by Teddy Roosevelt and Leonardo da Vinci, all while the game grinds on and the apocalypse approaches.
Kinsella is a smooth, often lyrical writer. When Gideon’s father speaks of his knowledge, the author writes: “I knew there were layers and layers of history on this land, like a chair with 10 coats of enamel. And I sensed some of those layers were peeling off, floating in the air, waiting to be breathed in, soaked up like sunshine.”
But for all its poetic passages, the story is visibly strained: Gideon’s weird sister, Enola Gay, a bomb-making radical, is never developed as a character. And the plot, propelled by the mystical Drifting Away, seems too convenient— contrived to heighten Gideon’s dilem-
ma. That is the risk in creating a magical universe: if the spell wears off, the reader becomes painfully aware of the author’s manipulations. For many readers, the magic in Shoeless Joe was powerful indeed, producing an enduring flight of fancy, a 500-foot home run. But if Confederacy is no instant replay, it is still good fun—the sort of long fly ball that stirs the fans before, sadly, curving foul.
W.P. Kinsella has spent the past three months relaxing in the Hawaiian sun and watching a little baseball. Indeed, the shaggy 50year-old novelist is never far from his favorite sport. He enjoyed a warm winter in the bleachers following the Hawaii Rainbows, a local team in the American college league. When a game was rained out, he would simply retire to his hotel room and watch spring season games on television. But Kinsella could not remain in paradise forever. His return to Canada two weeks ago was neatly timed to the swinging of bats in the major leagues. After a month-long promotional tour for his latest book, he will go home to White Rock, B.C., to continue work on his next novel and cheer for the closest major-league team, the Seattle Mariners. Commenting on the lowly Mariners, Kinsella said: “The nice thing about them is that you’re never disappointed. They’re like a sick pet—you can’t get mad if it craps on the carpet.” Fiction and his unshakable love of baseball have proven a lucky double play for Kinsella. Shoeless Joe, his 1982 fantasy novel about the sport, has sold more than 125,000 copies, and now 20th Century-Fox is considering turning it into a major motion picture. But Kinsella will not stop at that. A new collection of short stories, Fencepost Chronicles, is scheduled to appear this fall. Kinsella takes leave of the baseball diamond and returns to the Ermineskin Indian Reserve, which was the setting of his previous works, Dance Me Outside and The Moccasin Telegraph.
Still, baseball fans may be in for another treat because Kinsella’s next novel will again have the game at its heart. He describes the book, titled If Wishes Were Horses, as a story “about an ex-baseball player who becomes an investigative reporter and then has an extraterrestrial encounter.” Its tone, he insists, will be humorous, like that of his current novel. Said Kinsella: “Critics are too serious about my work. I’m not a mystic. In fact, I don’t believe anything I write about.”
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