Book Review: "Japanese Baseball and Other Stories" by W.P. Kinsella

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Book Review:
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Japanese Baseball and Other Stories, by W.P. Kinsella (Thistledown Press, 2000)

Baseball Fantastic, edited by W. P. Kinsella (Quarry Press, 2001)

It’s been some time since W.P. Kinsella has come out with new baseball fiction. The author of such memorable novels as Shoeless Joe, Box Socials and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and shorter works, The Thrill of the Grass, The Dixon Cornbelt League and Other Baseball Stories, reminds us of his literary connection with the game with two new releases.

Japanese Baseball and Other Stories marks the author’s return to the baseball quick read. The entries run from wry to melancholy. Many are full of disappointment over opportunities lost, in the game of life as well as on the baseball field. In some instances, baseball seems merely a setting for the theme, which could just have easily taken place elsewhere. In both “Tulips” and “Understanding Lynn Johannsen,” the protagonists happen to be young ballplayers; they could just have easily been football players or wrestlers.

Similar stories of resignation can be found in “The Arbiter,” about an umpire who must decide between his profession and his family; “The Lime Tree,” in which two elderly friends confront memories of lost loved ones; and “Wavelengths,” another buddy piece which follows two minor league teammates headed in different directions.

The author whisks his readers from the heartland of America to impoverished streets of Latin America to the spectacular mountains of the Far East. In “Japanese Baseball,” the hero is anything but an ugly American, as he wins the heart and hand of a Japanese maid, the daughter of his team’s general manager. Rather than the usual anti-gaijin (players from outside Japan) sentiments, his overtures are most welcome and therein lies a disturbing family secret.

“The Mansions of Federico Juarez” and “Fred Noonan’s Flying Service” (which also appears in Baseball Fantastic) operate on the premise that money isn’t everything .

Two of the more noteworthy pieces are “The Kowloon Cafe,” which is probably the first time feng shui and baseball appear in the same story. The other, “The Indestructible Hadrian Wilks,” a Cal Ripken-ish tale with a Dorian Gray twist, also appears in Fantastic.

Kinsella’s voice has matured somewhat from the comparatively youthful exuberance of his earlier work, which in many ways could be compared with Garrison Keillor: folksy, anecdotal and gently humorous. Several of his new stories take on a darker, more weary and resigned tone. Is this the sign of the author’s advancing age and outlook?

Kinsella edited and contributed to Baseball Fantastic, a collection of ambitiously bizarre ideas. The stories at times take on a Twilight Zone atmosphere; you almost expect to hear Rod Serling rendering his trademark stentorian introductions,

The pieces involve the dangers of time travel (”Two Men On, Bases Empty” and “The Winning Spirit”), the unlikely combination of the un-dead and Little League (”The Vampire Shortstop”) and communications with spirits (”In Boise,” “Ted Williams Storms the Gates of Heaven”). “Zanduce at Second,” “Naked to the Invisible Eye,” and “Sunny Billy Day” each deal with a player’s special ability to control the playing environment, wreaking havoc with the equities which have always made baseball a game of the people.

Kinsella offers a thought-provoking consideration in “The Franchise,” a yam about an alternative existence in which George H. Bush — father of the sitting U.S. president-and Cuban leader Fidel Castro face off as antagonistic opponents in the 1959 World Series. The battles on and off the diamond have political ramifications that could change the course of world history.

As with any assemblage of writers brought together for a project like this, Fantastic is, no pun intended, a hit or miss proposition. But Kinsella’s quirkiness is part of what endears him to his fans. And there is enough weirdness to last throughout the off-season, after baseball’s hot embers have long-since cooled.

This review originally appeared on JanuaryMagazine.com in November 2001.

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