A FEW YEARS ago, W P. Kinsella wrote a charming little story about a man who constructs a baseball diamond out of an Iowa cornfield and then imagines that his dead father and a dead and falsely disgraced baseball great come to play on it. Kinsella went on to build a charming but very sentimental novel on the story's foundations. A major film studio, looking for a vehicle that would convince Americans that the United States still was a country filled with decent corn farmers instead of homeless people and stock-market ripoff artists, purchased the novel's movie rights. The studio made a successful movie out of the novel, depicting a nation fitted with nice farmers, frecklefaced wives, cars, college professors, and an immense amount of corn. Kinsella, by now selfconsciously famous, took to spending most of his time across the border, mouthing slogans about the virtues of freemarket economics, badmouthing Canada, accepting prestigious awards such as the Order of Canada - and writing more baseball stories.
He soon developed a simple formula for these stories. Here's how it works: take an obscure fact from the Baseball Encyclopaedia or rule book, add a character with a funny nickname or a magical ability, fold in witty dialogue spiced with colourful swear-words, and slather the oleo with a mixture of equal parts ambiguity and corn.
Story after story tumbled into the marketplace, while Kinsella kept on yapping about free trade, self-reliance, the public's inalienable right to be entertained, and other socio-economic homilies Americans tend to preach without practising. The Canadian government, which admires the same things about America Kinsella does and has the same contempt for things Canadian -elevated him to the title of Officer of the Order of Canada.
Three collections of such stories have now been published: The Thrill of the Grass (1984), The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt (1988), and the latest, The Dixon Cornbelt League. In "The Baseball Wolf," the first story in the book, a colourful young Latino shortstop turns into a wolf, and the narrator, also a colourful guy, has some colourful dialogue with his colourful manager and eventually discovers that all you need to do is want things in order for them to come true. The next story brings pitching great Christy Mathewson back from the dead to teach a fading manager the screwball - a pitch that everyone in baseball over the age of 14 knows how to throw but, in the interest of keeping one's elbow tendons attached, doesn't. Then he gives us a watery version of the Gary Gaetti story: Gaetti, a hardbitten third baseman, became a bornagain Christian and, with the Lord accountable for everything, lost his intensity and most of his skills.
On it goes. A misogynist (and, incidentally, anti-Canadian) tale about a baseball wife who saps her husband's skills by painting Ukrainian Easter eggs, then another magicability story, then an offensively trivial bringing-back-to-life of Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirate star who died in a 1972 air crash while trying to bring relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. And so on. Each story in the book shares the same characteristics: it sticks to the "Shoeless Joe" formula outlined above, and it is morally trivial.
Herein rests the problem with Kinsella's formula. "Shoeless Joe" (along with a substantial number of Kinsella's earlier non-baseball stories, most of them based on his hilarious fictionalization of Central Alberta's Hobbema Indian band) is not morally trivial. It is about the strange common sense of the imagination, and the need to countermand the market-place common sense that will eventually make us all homeless.
What I'm suggesting, beyond the idea that The Dixon Cornbelt League isn't a very good book, is that the root of W P Kinsella's considerable writing talent is a moral one.
This may come as a surprise to some, but baseball very rarely resembles life, nor is the United States a series of picturesque farm towns under the buttery Iowa twilight. First of all, baseball has rules, whereas life evidently hasn't any. Second, the United States is a series of decaying industrial zones filled with homeless people, bankrupt governments, banks, and economic attitudes.
Organized baseball itself is about to come apart at the seams, sunk beneath the weight of the players' gold chains and the owners' refusal to cooperate with anyone or anything other than near-term profit-taking strategies.
Kinsella may suffer the same fate. So long as he continues to butter up the marketplace with silly baseball stories fuelled by the exaggeration and sentimentality that characterize The Dixon Cornbelt League, he's betraying his real talent. And if he does it too long, he may lose the talent altogether.