Saturday, June 2, 2007

Reading Mark Harris

A Reading Reminiscence
by Gary Presley

Here and there in my life, I've stumbled across a book or a story that resonated so deeply with whatever makes up my personality that I cannot forget it. No, it's more than that. I think about the book or the story as the days roll by, and it (and every other one in my memory library) frames my world-view; it becomes a point of reference; it filters how I think about things that happen in my life that I can relate to the narrative of the story or the novel or the book.

For short stories, it was T. Coraghessan Boyle's "We Are Norsemen" from one of his first collections.

For creative nonfiction essays, it was Richard Selzer's "Imelda."

For nonfiction, it was Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell

Novels? There have been several, but I seem to be trapped in the dynamic of my Americanism. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. From Here to Eternity by James Jones. There have been others, of course. Too many to count; too many to remember at this moment. Recently, in fact, I read and then immediately re-read Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent.

I've clung to the stories within the novels above, and others like them, because of the worlds, the narratives, the characters they create and the reality that portray are so true to the perceptions I hold about this world and my place in it.

I think about this element of my reading today because Mark Harris wrote a book that had that influence on me. Actually, he wrote a series of books, all about baseball, and Henry Wiggen, a Major League baseball pitcher.

Mark Harris died this Wednesday past.
"He's every bit as permanent and important as Huckleberry Finn, as Ishmael and Ahab in 'Moby Dick,' and as Nick Adams in Hemingway's short stories," Cordelia Candelaria, author of "Seeking the Perfect Game: Baseball in American Literature," said of Harris.

"Henry Wiggen struggles with his individuality, his place in society and the moral dilemmas he faces. All of those struggles are as much about him as an American character as they are about baseball," Candelaria said.
Henry's life -- during which he became "Author," after writing his own book and becoming fictionally-famous as more than a baseball player -- was chronicled by Harris in four books.
  • The Southpaw (1953)
  • Bang the Drum Slowly (1956)
  • A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957)
  • It Looked Like Forever (1979)
When I read of Harris' death today, I remembered I had once written Boyle -- wrote him in fact immediately after I had read "We Are Norsemen" in either The Atlantic Monthly or Harper's.

I praised the work, told him how deeply it influenced me, and apologized for writing. I offered the apology because I had read only a few days before an interview with John Updike. That famous man said he found it tiresome to received mail from readers. I can't remember why, but considering Updike's talent it must have been a very good reason.

Boyle responded. He thanked me and said Updike was wrong. He also complained that the magazine editors had butchered his story and urged me to buy his then current short story collection, a book where it was included in its entirety. "Read that version. It's better."

I did, but I came away believing the shorter, more focused magazine story was better for reasons that really aren't relevant to why I feel compelled to write about Mark Harris.

I only mention Boyle and the correspondence because I wish I had written Mark Harris. I think he would have replied, and I surely would have discovered whether his attitude toward his readers was Updikean or Boylean. A form letter? Updikean. A personal note? Boyle.

I imagine his reaction would have been like Boyle's. I think he would have responded graciously. After all, the last thought in Bang the Drum Slowly, voiced by Henry as he walks away from the grave of his friend Bruce are "All I know is from here on out I rag nobody."

Words to live by.

Mark Harris, novelist, has left for a place where words might mean nothing. I can only honor him by searching for my copies of the four Harris baseball novels so that I might re-read them once more.

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