Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
(Ballantine, 1987, 224 pages)
Shoeless Joe is a strange blend of baseball nostalgia, rural elegy, and mystical realism. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Field of Dreams, which is based on the novel. Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer, hears a strange voice that tells him, “If you build it, he will come.” The “it” is a baseball field, which Ray carves out of his cornfield, and the “he” is Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced slugger who was banned from baseball after it was discovered that he helped throw the 1919 World Series. Ray builds the field, and Shoeless Joe, along with the other seven players implicated in the Black Sox scandal, mysteriously appear to play. The cryptic instructions aren’t over yet. When the voice tells Ray to “Ease his pain,” Ray somehow knows that he is being told to track down reclusive writer J. D. Salinger and take him to a baseball game. As Ray follows the promptings of the voice, the mystical events surrounding his field continue to multiply, and the farm falls into a financial crisis. So long as he continues to heed the voice, Ray is sure that that farm will be saved.
While the film captures the spirit of the novel, some of the key elements are treated very differently. First, there’s the “voice.” In the movie, the voice is a ghostly whisper carried on the wind that rustles the corn stalks. Kinsella’s version is the scratchy voice of a baseball announcer delivering his messages over the roar of a crowd. The voice should make the reader/viewer question Ray’s sanity. And yet, the sense of fate that Kinsella creates is so convincing that you never fail to trust that everything will work out. The movie has James Earl Jones portraying the fictional character of Terence Mann, a writer very much like J. D. Salinger. Jones’ delivery of the climactic speech about the place of baseball in America’s past is stirring. Yet, the oddity of Salinger’s presence in the novel is disorienting and entirely appropriate. Even with these differences – and there are of course many more – the movie successfully transposes the book’s mixture of fact and fiction, the natural and the supernatural, onto the screen.
For Kinsella, baseball is a religion, and he is the game’s great mystic visionary. The rituals, the stories, the atmosphere of the game are portrayed with reverence. Baseball is a link, a shared experience, between fathers and sons. It can actually bring together the living and the dead in the ritual of the game, made possible by Ray’s faith. The field gives Shoeless Joe another chance to play the game he loves after being betrayed by the crooks and the owners. It offers Ray a chance to save the land that he loves even as the creditors and the industrial famers close in on his little plot. The game and the land are tied up together. Baseball is a religion that defines America and the Midwest.