Michael Huber manages marketing/communications for the NYS Writers Institute based at the University at Albany. He previously worked in several newsroom positions at the Albany Times Union, leaving in 2017 as the website's interactive audience manager. His baseball career ended with a short stint on Orange Motors in the West End Little League in Albany.
"One of my favorite memories of playing little league occurred during times when the field was too wet for games. In the major leagues, the grounds crew pour bags of drying agent onto the dirt. At West End Little League, the coaches poured gasoline on the running paths and lit the field on fire."
Magic and belief in W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe
By Michael Huber
“Serenity is a very elusive quality. I've been trying all my life to find it.”
--- Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
Time and time again, when the Northeast spring blossoms into vibrant early summer, I pull W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe from my bookshelf and give it another read.
My copy is a beat-up paperback, thin enough to fit in the back pocket of my jeans. I open the book, ideally outside under a sky the color of cornflowers, and enter Kinsella's literary mirage of fantasy, dreams, and fathers and sons.
I know how it begins. The mystical words "If you build it, he will come" arrive early -- page 1, third paragraph. And I know how it ends: the subdued euphoria when the son meets his long-dead father, magically transformed into a sturdy 25-year old professional baseball player.
Shoeless Joe tells the story of Ray Kinsella, an unexceptional Iowan farmer guided by voices to do the most un-Iowan things imaginable. He plows up his cornfield and builds a baseball field. Professional ballplayers from the past, starting with Shoeless Joe Jackson, magically appear as Ray and his wife and daughter watch from the stands.
When the voice whispers "Ease his pain," Ray does what any of us would do: He drives to Windsor, Vt., to kidnap J.D. Salinger.
It's more comical than criminal. Here is how Ray attempts to coerce Salinger to get in his car once he finds him.
"I thought you might want to meet one of your characters."
"I've come to take you to a baseball game."
Finally, an appeal to the inner child: "I've brought you a baseball."
Ray reminds Salinger he used two characters named "Kinsella" in his writing. True story: Salinger (the writer) wrote a character named Ray Kinsella into his short story A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist at All, and he named Holden Caulfield's classmate Richard Kinsella in The Catcher in the Rye.
Michael Huber's battered paperback Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella.
W.P. Kinsella (Toronto Star / Getty Images)
Wait. Back up a few paragraphs. Salinger? Yes, that Salinger, the reclusive author who in fact lived in Cornish, N.H., just across the state line from the Windsor, Vt. in Shoeless Joe. When talk began of turning Kinsella's book into a film, Salinger's lawyers threatened to shut down the production if his name was used. The filmmakers backed down and reworked Kinsella's J.D. Salinger into the fictional "Terence Mann."
Sadly, "Field of Dreams" moviegoers miss the Salinger connection. Only in the book do we get the breadth of connection between Kinsella -- the character? the writer? -- and Salinger. Kinsella said in interviews that his original working title for Shoeless Joe was "The Kidnapping of J.D. Salinger," which I think better frames the narrative, moving its center from baseball to the friendship between the quixotic farmer and the reclusive author.
The J.D. Salinger we meet in Shoeless Joe serves as a mentor and muse to Ray, an idealistic and perplexed guy trying to find meaning from the mundane. "I never did one spontaneous thing in my life," he tells his wife.
It's a long drive back to Iowa, and Kinsella and Salinger pass the time discussing baseball, family, fame, and fantasy. The dialogue breezes along and makes me imagine a 1,000-mile road trip with a favorite author. Holden Caulfield imagines this very thing in Chapter 3 of Catcher: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
In my two years with the NYS Writers Institute, I've met dozens of accomplished and award-winning novelists, poets, and short story writers. Their backgrounds vary, but they all share certain attributes: a keen eye, mental discipline, and, most of all, a magical way with words. Salinger (the character) wants Kinsella (the character) to understand the writer's mind:
“Writers are magicians. They write down words, and, if they’re good, you believe that what they write is real, just as you believe a good magician has pulled the coins out of your ear, or made his assistant disappear. But the words on the page have no connection to the person who wrote them. Writers live other peoples’ lives for them.”
In his New York Times review of Shoeless Joe, Daniel Okrent, co-editor of The Ultimate Baseball Book and author of Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game, writes, "Mr. Kinsella is drunk on complementary elixirs, literature and baseball, and the cocktail he mixes of the two is a lyrical, seductive and altogether winning concoction." Isn't that a delicious description of a book suited for summertime reading?
I also enjoy Kinsella's book because, like Salinger's Catcher, Shoeless Joe is written in first-person narrative, a point of view that immediately grabs my attention. When Melville begins Moby-Dick with, "Call me Ishmael," my response is, "Hi, Ishmael. Tell me more of your story." First-person narrative invites the reader to inhabit Ray Kinsella's world and become an Iowa farmer, hear those voices, and smell the green grass of the baseball field.
You can't appreciate Kinsella's little novel without becoming a believer. Ray learns faith conquers death, magic heals family, and time is as wobbly as a knuckleball.
As the story ends, dreams are fulfilled. Salinger joins the ghostly ballplayers in the cornfield and vows to return to writing. Ray meets and talks with his long-dead dad, John Kinsella, who's been resurrected with the other ballplayers. In another tip of the cap to Salinger, Ray's dad is the catcher.
I have few memories of my father. He died when I was 8 years old. I remember he played on a softball team. Like Ray's dad, my father was the catcher. Another memory, a blurred snapshot. It's springtime. My dad is at the Little League ballpark. He's standing on the other side of the fence, elbows propped on the crossbar. He's watching me and my brother John play ball. I don't remember playing catch with my dad.
Shoeless Joe is a little novel, just 224 pages, dripping with nostalgia. It gives the reader a chance to look at the sky -- or a cornfield -- and listen. Do you hear it? The voice urging you to "fulfill the dream"?
In the most poignant scene in the book, Ray and his brother talk with their dad. Kinsella writes, "As the three of us walk across the vast emerald lake that is the outfield, I think of all the things I'll want to talk to the catcher about. I'll guide the conversation … and we'll hardly realize that we're talking of love, and family, and life, and beauty, and friendship, and sharing."
Ray feels at peace. He has eased his pain. He has become the hero of his own life.
I found it fascinating to learn W.P. Kinsella uncovered the name "Kinsella" in the writings of J.D. Salinger.
Another cosmic connection? While researching this essay, I read an article on Shoeless Joe Jackson written by a Muhlenberg College professor named... Michael Huber.