I often go to second-hand bookstores or public libraries (where you can sometimes get books for very little) and pick up things that look interesting. Sometimes I read them promptly, other times I let them go for years. Now I’m looking through the books I’ve amassed through the years and trying to read at least some of these to see whether I want to keep them or not. Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian Barnes seems to be one I’ll get rid of. Maybe I’d find it interesting, if I’d ever read Flaubert, but I haven’t. Donald Hays” The Dixie Association is another matter.
It was first published almost 30 years ago, and is beautifully written. Some research on Amazon says it was the author’s first novel, and that he seems to have written very little since, which is a shame. This is a baseball novel set in the south, and every word of it rings true. The narrator, Hog Durham, has been serving time for armed robbery, before being paroled to be allowed to play baseball. He’s led a fairly wild life, as a rustler, and liquor store robber, and has reached his early 30’s, but has always been a good baseball player, a good hitter, with power, and is grateful for the chance to play again. The major leagues are probably out of the question, but just a chance to play at a reasonably high level makes him happy.
The team he joins is an odd one, though. The owner isn’t really an owner, for one thing. He runs the club as a co-op, which means each player gets a share, and gets to vote on what the team does, as far as personnel moves go. The “owner” is also the only one-armed man to have played in the major leagues, and is known as Lefty Marks, although it’s his right arm that’s missing. The humor sometimes gets a little broad here, but there’s a lot of it, and it’s pretty amusing.
Since the team’s home is Little Rock, Arkansas, this sets up quite a little culture clash. A lot of the local Christians take umbrage at a socialist baseball team, and a lot of the economic and political powers that be don’t care much for it either. As befits such a team, a lot of the players are misfits, some on the way up (possibly to the major leagues), others on their way down. Durham is a long-shot to make the majors, and knows it. Other players know this is definitely their last chance, and want to make the most of it. During the season the team begins playing a woman, as well as several Cubans; some of the Cubans are Cuban citizens, which doesn’t endear them to the locals, while one is a refugee. There are several other interesting characters, and a lot of subplots.
The book ends as you might expect, with the team winning the pennant, despite all trials and tribulations, some on the field, a lot off. Durham does a lot of reflecting on his life during the book, since he’s in a place providing an interesting contrast to prison. He picks up a woman early in the book who works for the team, and though he didn’t exactly plan it that way, it becomes serious, and he thinks about how he’s run away from commitment in the past (how unusual is that, for a man?) but now wants to grab whatever future he can, and that having someone to care about with him is becoming more and more attractive. It may be stereotypical for the main character to realize that freedom doesn’t reside in being outside of everything, but connected, but it still comes across pretty authentically.
Of course the pennant race has to come down to the last day, with the narrator batting against a pitcher who used to play for his team, left because of the woman and the Cuban players, and went to the dominant team in the league, which is also somewhat villainous. The hero does indeed hit the home run that wins the pennant, in the last of the ninth, and in the midst of his happiness about that, reflects on his and his teammates’ futures. Nothing is certain, though things seem to be in about as good a position as they can be.
Since this is a baseball novel, and it’s set largely in the Deep South, the action takes place mostly in hot weather, and there’s a lot of sex and drinking. That seems to go along with a lot of factual books I’ve read about baseball. A lot of the great players have come out of the south, and maybe in the 1980’s, when this book was first published, baseball still had some pretensions of being American’s game. It’s not true any longer. Football has raced past it, and in the book, the local sports editor isn’t much interested in a minor league baseball team, when he can write about the University of Arkansas football team. Football hasn’t gotten any less popular since.
That may be a shame, but most of us don’t seem to have the patience for the pace of baseball anymore. We like action, and baseball’s dramatic moments can be pretty sparse. One person may admire a well-pitched game, but a lot of people want to see offense, and the more of it the better. The things that happen on a baseball field, especially what pitches the pitcher is throwing, are often too subtle to see, at least if you’re sitting in the stands. Not that any game in any sport can’t be boring, but football and basketball do tend to have more action.
Since I decided, about a year ago, to give up TV, and am now driving a car without a radio, I’ve become disconnected from sports, major league or otherwise. I can’t say I miss it a lot. I admire teamwork, and I think the spotlight has shifted more to the stars and away from the teams. It was always so, to some extent, but it seems to have become more so now. So that’s a part of life I find less interesting now.
I’m also curious why Donald Hays hasn’t published more. I only found three of his books on Amazon, and that’s not very productive for thirty years or so. He was already a very good writer when he published this book, so why didn’t he publish more? It may be he’s a writer that needs to polish every sentence, which can take awhile, but I wonder if he hasn’t also had some private dramas going on that got in the way of his writing. That’s something I’m unlikely to find out, though.