Thoughts: Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella

Before we start, no, I have not seen Field of Dreams, so you won’t find anything out about how similar or different it is to the book.

Secondly I don’t know if the classic spoiler warning counts here? Field of Dreams was popular I guess? And it’s quite old? Eh, who knows. Use your best judgement.

Shoeless Joe is, of course, a book about baseball, but it’s also a book about the Iowa cornfields and the psychogeography of the US midwest (reference for other non-Americans, no, it doesn’t make sense but who are we to argue with a people who think the metric system is beneath them?). It’s about a lot of more universal things as well; family and hobbies that are so all-consuming that to call them hobbies demeans them, dreams and people who lose them, or who never touch them in the first place.

The writing style, and some of the cultural atmosphere reminded me of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, soft and lyrical and all about good, kind people who love their land and don’t have or need much else. Kinsella uses an awful lot of metaphors (which I noticed because I tend to use an awful lot of metaphors too) and I’m not sure if it was too many, or if it was just something I noticed. He recreates, or creates, quite a lovely nostalgic US, which may or may not have existed but for which I think a lot of people yearn, full of detail and sensory evocations. Even within this the story is looking further and further back, the anecdotes and reminiscences of old men and ghosts forming a thread that goes on forever into the past that we can only see a little of before it fades beyond our sight.

I will get it out of the way now that I don’t know anything about baseball, and national pastimes generally leave me cold (though I did enjoy going to some Women’s World Cup matches in Nice), but that didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book. There are only a very few, short sequences in which understanding baseball rules and jargon would enhance the reading.

In general I liked the more magical, speculative parts. I’m always here for ghosts (I’m predictable that way), and quiet magic, unexplained things. I found it immensely satisfying when Moonlight Graham introduced himself at the side of the road.

I wasn’t quite sure about the twin thing though? The protagonist, Ray, has a twin brother, Richard, and they’re identical in every possible way except Richard has a particular scar on his eyebrow. Richard has been off vanished somewhere for years, but then he comes back, attracted by the magic of Ray’s ghostly baseball field. Ray acquires his own eyebrow scar, identical to his brother’s. Ray can see the ghosts but Richard can’t. Ray works in a carnival but Richard as a child is the one who was enamoured of carnivals and circuses. Richard left after a disagreement with their father and never made peace with him before he died, until he sees him at the baseball game, where Ray manages to get him a place on the ghost team as catcher after building the field and tending the land. Ray remembers shooting a sparrow as a child and upsetting his mother, but when he asks her about this later she is sure it was Richard. Richard’s girlfriend, Gypsy, an old runaway who co-owns the carnival with him, reveals at the end that her real name is Annie, just like Ray’s wife. It’s hinted and implied many times that Ray and Richard may in fact be one and the same person, but never committed to. And I couldn’t quite tell what it would mean if it were the case. In the end it felt a little like being mystical for the sake of it.

Something else that doesn’t quite pay off is the threat of the brother-in-law and his lawyer* trying to buy the farm. The threat is built up, passes the point of no return when the mortgage is sold behind Ray’s back, and then… well. The brother-in-law and lawyer are humanised or redeemed when Ray’s daughter has an accident, putting their personal grievances and dislikes aside in the emergency, but the actual threat of losing the farm, which now feels like an impersonal, inevitable force independent of the brother-in-law himself, hasn’t abated. Salinger – and oh, we’ll get to him – has put forth his vision of the future, in which people drawn by the magic will pay to watch ghostly ball games at the farm and the Kinsellas’ financial woes will be solved this way, but it didn’t feel resolved enough to me. Maybe I lack the faith.

Let’s talk about Salinger.

I see that in the film it was changed from Salinger, and I am fully on the side of this decision. So Ray Kinsella, our protagonist, hears the mystical baseball announcer again after the “If you build it…” line. The command this time is “Ease his pain,” and this refers, Kinsella knows instinctively, to actual alive-at-the-time reclusive author, J. D. Salinger, who Kinsella visits and convinces to join his baseball quest. I was expecting this to be kind of an episode and then we’d move on with less awkward parts of the story, but Salinger is a pretty integral part of the story till the very end.

And part of me can kind of almost rationalise it – there’s something holy about this whole quest, about the voices and the ghosts and the closure beyond the grave, and holy things are very often transgressive in just that way. The person touched by visions or tasked with a sacred mission must get out of their comfort zone and do humiliating or taboo things to prove their faith or change the world in some way. The discomfort I felt about Ray Kinsella essentially kidnapping J. D. Salinger stands as a testament to the effectiveness of this device to represent such things.

But… as I said, J. D. Salinger was alive when the book was written, and the fact that they changed the character’s name in the film out of fear Salinger would sue them says to me that Salinger was at least probably not consulted about this and probably wouldn’t have been happy with it, and Salinger was a real person who didn’t ask for words to be put in his mouth.

And I think it is different to the real life baseball players, who were dead at the time the book was written, and depicted as ghosts, or recreated, in the case of Moonlight Graham, from the memories of people who knew them. It feels like recreation, speculation, homage, and they don’t (apart from Graham) say much. The writing of Salinger though, feels a little presumptuous.

Altogether then, yes, I did enjoy it, but there were some things about it that were a lot to think about. Some in a good way, some in a… more complicated way.

*The lawyer is called “Bluestein”, which felt a little like anti-Semitic dog-whistling as well, with his shiftiness and desire for money/profit. Similarly, the only black characters (unless any of the baseball players are black) are framed as quite… sort of ambiguously hostile. Of course, as all of the main characters are white, there are unpleasant white characters too, but you know, it’s the variety of the thing.

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