Friday, March 12, 2010

Anyone who's been reading this blog for a while knows that I have a love-hate relationship with the novels of Philip Roth. Nonetheless, every time I see one for sale at the Goodwill for $1.99, I buy it, and eventually find myself reading it, which is presently the case with his 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner American Pastoral. As I've also mentioned, I tend to be allergic to prize winners--not for any sensible reason but more because I'm always steeling myself for disappointment. There are warehouses crammed with mediocre, easy-answers fiction, much of it well reviewed and laden with prizes. I'm a lover of great novels, so the situation makes me glum and misanthropic; and if there's one thing I hate to be, it's misanthropic (though glum is fine, in moderation). But I am getting off track here. What I really wanted to write about today was John Tunis's 1940 baseball novel The Kid from Tomkinsville.

I had never heard of this novel until the Christmas, a couple of years ago, when my father (who is a little younger than Philip Roth) gave it to my baseball- and book-mad son Paul. Apparently my dad had loved the book when he was young. Later, when my father-in-law (also a little younger than Philip Roth) saw Paul reading it, he mentioned that he, too, had loved the book. Paul, following his grandfathers' pattern, sucked up the novel, and then every other Tunis novel we came across at the Goodwill. But I slotted them away in my mind as "Hardy Boys, the Baseball Version" and never took the matter further.

Then, yesterday, housed within the first few pages of Roth's American Pastoral, I encountered what was essentially a three-page essay on The Kid from Tomkinsville. It's too long to legally extract here, but it's a wondrous piece of writing. So I read it aloud to Paul, who is now twelve and has been reading these Tunis novels since he was about ten. Here is a taste of Roth's writing. The "I" is his character Nathan Zuckerman, recalling his first encounter with Tunis's book:

On the last day of the season, in a game against the Giants, who are in first place by only half a game, the Kid kindles the Dodgers' hitting attack, and in the bottom of the fourteenth . . . he makes the final game-saving play, a running catch smack up against the right center-field wall. That tremendous daredevil feat sends the Dodgers into the World Series and leaves him "writhing in agony on the green turf of deep right center." Tunis concludes like this: "Dusk descended upon a mass of players, on a huge crowd pouring onto the field, on a couple of men carrying an inert form through the mob on a stretcher. . . . There was a clap of thunder. Rain descended upon the Polo Grounds." Descended, descended, a clap of thunder, and thus ends the boys' Book of Job.

I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzle Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzle carried off "inert" on a stretcher but the best of them all, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy.

I looked up from reading this aloud to Paul. He looked back at me for a moment without speaking. Then he said, very quietly, "Wow."

I asked, "Is the book really like this?"

He said, "Yes." And then he walked off into his room and shut the door.

There are so many things that move me about this passage, not least the recognition that generations of men and boys have privately loved this novel. But I suppose, merely because I'm his mother, watching Paul react so austerely (to borrow Roth's word) yet so fervently to a book that has been a staple of his private life. . . . Well, what does one say?

Wordsworth tried to find his own words for that experience, many times. In his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" he writes, of children,

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul's immensity.

They're not my words, exactly, but I'll borrow them for the moment, along with Roth's. I've never been so grateful to be reading a Roth novel as I am today.

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