When people ask me to recommend books set in sports, I always mention Mark Harris.
Harris, the author of thirteen novels and four books of non-fiction, died last week at the age of eighty four. The books I suggest are the four narrated by pitcher Henry "Author" Wiggin, whose story Harris first took up in 1956 with "Bang the Drum Slowly."
Mark Harris's novels set in baseball, which also include "The Southpaw," "A Ticket for a Seamstitch," and "It Looked Like Forever," treat profound issues without ever seeming to take themselves too seriously. Of the last and the first of them, poet Donald Hall wrote "'It Looked Like Forever' is not so much about baseball as it is about aging, just as 'Bang the Drum Slowly' was not so much about baseball as it is about dying."
Those comments are accurate, certainly, but they make Mark Harris sound lugubrious. He wasn't. He was a master of a vernacular that was at once earnest and wonderfully comic. Henry Wiggin, his narrator, was a pitcher, but he was also an insurance salesman. Most of his customers were fellow ballplayers. One of my favorites among them was an alcoholic, second-string catcher at the end of his career. When Henry asks him what he's got set aside for his retirement, the guy smiles crookedly and tells Henry he's got a catcher's glove. Henry earnestly urges him to consider an annuity.
In the last of the Henry Wiggin novels, Henry, who has continued to pitch because he wants his daughter to see him on the mound, learns courtesy of a line drive that comes rocketing back at him off the bat of a younger man that it doesn't last forever after all. He sheds no tears for himself. Henry Wiggin has learned acceptance enough to acknowledge the sadness of loss without sinking into self-pity.
But that, like Donald Hall's comments, sounds awfully solemn, and solemn is not Mark Harris. He was a writer with touch enough to make gentle fun of his characters — even his narrator — while simultaneously celebrating their strengths. At the end of "Bang the Drum Slowly," Henry, wishing to repent for making fun of a teammate who has died, says "From here on in, I rag nobody."
We know Henry cannot live up to this noble promise, but we love him for announcing it and being, for a time, better than he has been.
The man who gave us Henry Wiggin in four novels is gone, now. May commemoration of his achievement encourage more people to read the books he gave us.
This program aired on June 7, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.