Yes, the author is THAT W.P. Kinsella, the one who wrote the story on which the movie Field of Dreams was based. Which, you’d think, would make the rest of his fiction a little more popular and a lot easier to find. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case: I’ve spent hours scouring used book stores and the back stalls of Amazon in search of Kinsella’s canon. Why? Because as anyone lucky enough to have encountered the original version of “Shoeless Joe” in an anthology – or the author’s “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy” or “Box Socials,” for that matter - can attest, Field of Dreams wasn’t a fluke: W.P. Kinsella knows how to tell a great story. Stories of hope, stories of despair, stories of love, stories of neglect, funny stories, nostalgic stories, tragic stories … above all, stories filled with wonder and magic and – yes - baseball.
As in “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon,” in which a weary old baseball manager must choose between winning his first pennant or triggering the end of the world. As in “How I Got My Nickname,” in which a pimply, overweight teenage bookworm with a gift for hitting has to make the choice that will determine his destiny. As in “The Night Matty Mota Tied the Record,” in which Death appears to offer a baseball fan the option of dying in the place of a baseball phenom, thus allowing the baseball phenom to realize his full measure of greatness. As in “The Battery,” which features twin boys born to be baseball prodigies, prophecies, coups, kidnappings, cockatoos, bookies, bad trades, magical manifestations, mind-reading, and an actual wizard. As in “The Thrill of the Grass,” in which a silent swarm of baseball fans, animated by the single shared purpose, undertake a feat of prodigious baseball magic.
Nor are the other stories in this collection lacking in magic, though Kinsella summons it in its more familiar form – love: hopeful love (“Driving Towards the Moon,” in which true love blossoms between a weary housewife and a young baseball star), hopeless love (“Barefoot and Pregnant in Des Moines,” in which romantic love gradually fades into habit), love gone wrong (“Nursie,” in which a baseball player reflects on the disasterous remains of his high school romance), brotherly love (“Bud and Tom,” in which a dispute over baseball destroys the bond between two brothers), self-love (“The Firefighter,” in which selfishness dooms a family to ironic tragedy), doomed love (“The Baseball Spur,” in which we learn that while neither love nor baseball are forever, hope endures).
Given so many lovely tales to choose from, I suspect it would be hard for any two people to agree on a single favorite. But then, isn’t that one of the qualities that makes a book of short stories great? Make that doubly true when the theme is baseball and the author is a bit of a wizard himself.