Gordon Lish on Tom Wolfe

Gordon Lish wrote a remembrance for The Paris Review of Tom Wolfe, who died last Sunday. A baseball mitt story, from the remembrance:

Back in the day when there was talk between Tom’s Sheila and my Barbara of the two squads going halvsies on a great big house in Hamptonia, we all were sitting around in said real estate after a Sunday brunchy fress—Tom’s sidekicks Eddie Hayes and Richard Merkin among the newspaperbound bagelbound boasters—and I just so happened to have launched myself into a rapsode bearing on my baseball-playing startlements, this before I was expelled from the school where I’d done the startling, and Tom said he had a couple of mitts, why didn’t we go on out onto the lawn and throw it around awhile, and I said, thanks but no thanks, I having been a catcher when I was doing my startling and would therefore require the glove worn by a catcher if I were to catch a ball thrown by a pitcher known to me to have been a farm-team pitcher for the Dodgers, unless it was the Yanks, whereupon Tom allowed as to how he had happened to have fetched out from the city to Hamptonia the very variety of mitt, and so he had and so we did, humping it out onto the lawn and just as humpily regrouping among the housebound, Tom mum as you’d want that no toss he’d lobbed at me could I, the be-mitted braggart, begin to handle.

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“A Poem About Baseballs” by Denis Johnson

“A Poem About Baseballs” by Denis Johnson–
 
for years the scenes bustled
through him as he dreamed he was
alive. then he felt real, and slammed
awake in the wet sheets screaming
too fast, everything moves
too fast, and the edges of things
are gone. four blocks away
a baseball was a dot against
the sky, and he thought, my
glove is too big, i will
drop the ball and it will be
a home run. the snow falls
too fast from the clouds,
and night is dropped and
snatched back like a huge
joke. is that the ball, or is
it just a bird, and the ball is
somewhere else, and i will
miss it? and the edges are gone, my
hands melt into the walls, my
hands do not end where the wall
begins. should i move
forward, or back, or will the ball
come right to me? i know i will
miss, because i always miss when it
takes so long. the wall has no
surface, no edge, the wall
fades into the air and the air is
my hand, and i am the wall. my
arm is the syringe and thus i
become the nurse, i am you,
nurse. if he gets
around the bases before the
ball comes down, is it a home
run, even if i catch it? if we could
slow down, and stop, we
would be one fused mass careening
at too great a speed through
the emptiness. if i catch
the ball, our side will
be up, and i will have to bat,
and i might strike out.

Boy with Baseball — George Luks

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“Home Run” — Steven Millhauser

You can read along here…

Book Acquired, 8.29.2011

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Got a finished copy of Chad Harbach’s (n+1) début novel The Art of Fielding today; the book comes out next week from Little, Brown & Company. Their description—

At Westish College, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for the big leagues until a routine throw goes disastrously off course. In the aftermath of his error, the fates of five people are upended. Henry’s life’s purpose is called into question. Guert Affenlight, the college’s president, has fallen helplessly, unexpectedly in love. Owen Glass, Henry’s gay roommate, becomes swept up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the team captain, realizes he guides Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish to start a new life after an ill-fated marriage. As the season counts down to its climax, these five confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets, and help one another to find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence, and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others.

 

Underworld — Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo’s Underworld explores American culture and psyche throughout–and immediately after–the Cold War era. The book centers loosely on waste management exec Nick Shay, but diverges in constant achronological loops, employing dozens of different voices and viewpoints in order to handle a variety of themes and subjects that are, frankly, too massive to get a grip on. At all times though, Underworld seems aware of this inability to document its subject’s vastness, but, like Ishmael in Moby-Dick who attempts to systemize the unknowable whales, the characters in Underworld nevertheless try and try again to find order and meaning in a paranoid and increasingly disconnected world. The real center of the book is a baseball, the ball pitched by Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca to New York Giant Bobby Thomson, who won the game in a hit known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” However, this ball, this center, is repeatedly transferred, deferred, shifted, and even characters who claim to own the “real” ball understand that the validity or “realness” of the home run ball is always under question. DeLillo seems to suggest that finding fixed, stable meaning is an illusion; the best that people can hope for is to find solace in their family and friends in open, honest relationships.

By the time DeLillo had published Underworld in 1997, he had already established himself as a canonized saint of the American postmodern literary tradition, yet Underworld, in its massive size and scope (it weighs in at over 800 pages) seems primed to be the author’s “big book,” destined to fit neatly in the new canon of large and long American postmodern novels next to John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Underworld utilizes nearly every postmodernist trope, including a nonlinear plot, myriad, discursive voices, and a willingness to engage historical figures. The novel also manages to contain a bulk of themes and devices DeLillo has employed throughout his body of work: find here the paranoid alienation of The Names, the shadow of assassination-as-spectacle from Libra, the intersection of art, violence, economics, and politics of Mao II, and the exploration of the new American religion, consumerism, that underpinned White Noise.

Ultimately, all of Underworld‘s themes–garbage, art, war, insulation, paranoia, drugs, death, secrets, baseball, identity, etc.–threaten to crush the narrative under their sheer weight. Unlike Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and DFW, DeLillo is rarely playful or even fun; most of the humor here serves to alienate rather than connect the reader to the characters. The book is masterfully written, and any number of the little vignettes, like the sad life of the Texas Highway Killer, or the Space-Age compartmentalization of a 1950s suburban family, expertly delineate DeLillo’s handling of concepts and motifs. However, the book’s prologue, “The Triumph of Death” (the title alludes to Bruegel’s painting), an account of the 1951 Dodgers-Giants pennant game is easily the most passionate, intense, and engaging moment of the novel. This assessment isn’t meant to suggest that the remaining 700 pages or so of Underworld aren’t as rewarding, they just aren’t as fun. Underworld is probably a work of genius, and the sum of its many, many parts do add up to more than the corpus, only that sum will probably leave a lot of readers feeling cold.