Going the Distance

September 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

The store lifted away from us like a bell jar. The other players took their places on the field: tall, silent Ted Troy at first base, Peppy Gosselin at shortstop, Pudge Green in center field. As the players took shape, the racks of pink and blue dresses, the women’s and children’s clothes, fresh as sunshine, smelling of ironing and starch, rose like mist. The grass was emerald-green, measled with dandelions.

I learned of the deaths of W. P. Kinsella and Edward Albee within ten minutes of each other on Friday. Two careful writers who took the human psyche to widely disparate places.

Kinsella, of course, was known for his magical realist baseball fiction, especially Shoeless Joe, the novel that formed the basis of Field of Dreams. The reclusive Sixties author played in the film by James Earl Jones, Terrence Mann, is in the book the real-life reclusive author  J. D. Salinger, who was still very much alive when Kinsella used him as a character in the book. As a deeper homage, the name “Ray Kinsella” was borrowed from the main character in Salinger’s story “A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist At All.”

I read Kinsella in my early twenties, shortly after I read Salinger for the first time. Kinsella was Canadian, but Shoeless Joe was not his only baseball fiction set in Iowa. A fictional town called Onamota is the setting for many stories. He seemed to have had a preference for the Chicago teams. The 1919 Black Sox, of course, figure prominently in Shoeless Joe, and the legendary double-play combination of rhyme, (Joe) Tinker to (Johnny) Evers to (Frank) Chance, appear in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.

In “K Mart,” included in the collection Go the Distance (1988), friends reuniting for the funeral of a woman, whom the narrator loved and treated poorly, visit the department store that now stands where their baseball field used to be. Written with simplistic grace, it’s a comical ending to a sad story that, like much of Kinsella’s fiction, celebrates the timelessness of the sport, the reliability of its structure, and the forgiveness of its myth.

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