“Writing is different,” says Jerry. “Ordinary people don’t understand. Even other writers don’t understand.’” – Ray Kinsella, Shoeless Joe
This is one of many insights percolating through the book that inspired the Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams. You know the movie. But have you ever read the book?
I did. Finally.
Shoeless Joe isn’t an easy read. Kinsella has a penchant for circuitous syntax, dense dialogue and bunny trails. He also hits similes and metaphors like – on a fastball. The result is a rambling, lumbering read. In fact, I was surprised at what a struggle finishing this book was. I didn’t expect that. But it also has its moments. And some key differences from the movie version.
The Terence Mann character, portrayed by James Earl Jones in the movie? Nope. In the book the reluctant writer, kidnapped by Ray Kinsella and taken to a baseball game in Fenway Park, is none other than J.D. Salinger. Aka, “Jerry.” See quote above.
There’s also Eddie Scissons, “the oldest living Chicago cub.” Archibald “Moonlight” Graham is described as “a baseball player who was patted on the headed by a dream.”
Additionally, Ray has an identical twin brother in the book, Richard. Richard had an argument with his dad at age sixteen, stormed out of the house and was never seen or heard from again. Until… Well. For that you’ll have to read the book.
Early in the book, Salinger describes baseball as “perhaps the most heart-rending, delicious sport in the Western Hemisphere” (p 35). If you’re willing to go the distance with Shoeless Joe, even the most dyed-in-the-field goal NFL fan will be ready to agree.
Painfully overwritten in places, the story gets back on track in the closing chapters. Ray’s teetering on the rim edge of bankruptcy and foreclosure stares him in the face. And the narrative regains its footing. Equilibrium returns with the “People will come” speech so eloquently delivered by James Earl Jones in the movie. In the book it comes from J.D. Salinger (p. 252-3). The soliloquy takes on a poignant richness that’s a notch or two higher than what we hear in the movie:
“ – for it is money they have, and peace they lack.”
“… the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers.”
There’s something gleaming and gracious about the written version of this speech. Something wistful and radiant. It reminds us of a time when baseball was played for sheer love of the game. A time before multi-million dollar player contracts or a bottle of water for $5.50. This the book winds down, it gently reminds of us of a softer, simpler, less harried era. It’s nostalgic and bittersweet.
Final chapters are as sighingly satisfying and as enigmatically beautiful as moonlight silvering the emerald lake that’s center field, or a three-two count with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.