Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Better In Your Head?--BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY

Mark Harris

SPOILER ALERT, thirty years from now, DC sports aficionados will be arguing over which local team wasted their talent most spectacularly: the Capitals from 2012-2017, or the Nationals from 2012-2017.

Bang the Drum Slowly is the second in a tetralogy of first-person novels chronicling the career of Henry Wiggen, major league pitcher for the (fictional) New York Mammoths, from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. He sells insurance in the off-season for extra cash, and he also loves to write, which is why nearly everyone calls him "Author." He's doing none of those things when his home phone rings. Mammoths catcher Bruce Pearson is on the other end, asking if Henry could stand to fly to Minnesota and accompany Bruce on his return home to Georgia. 

Bruce needs all the help he can get. He's been in the Midwest talking with doctors, who have told him he has Hodgkin's Disease. The diagnosis is so dire, the hospital won't permit Bruce to leave the facility without a friend or family member to accompany him.

Before long it's time for both men to report to spring training in Florida to prepare for the upcoming 1955 season. Bruce is just barely holding onto a roster spot, while Henry is holding out for more money. He's a man of integrity, loves the game, but all the same he knows his value to the squad. Henry and the team meet to hammer out a contract. The matter of money works itself out quickly; but Henry wants more. He wants the Mammoths front office to promise him that he and Bruce Pearson will remain on the same team. Ergo, if Bruce is sent to the minors, Henry must follow. If one man is traded, the other must also be part of the deal. The team agrees, although manager Dutch Schnell almost immediately begins investigating why Wiggen would want such a clause.

A terminal illness does not render one sinless; Bruce doesn't seem too fond of non-white folk, for example, and he cavorts with a prostitute. Nor does it render one useless. Despite caring far more about being a hitter than a catcher, Bruce listens to Henry's advice and tries his very best to improve his overall game.

Still unaware of his condition, Bruce's teammates "rag" the slow-witted country boy gleefully. And he is kinda goofy, but who among them isn't? There's a guy called "Canada" (Winnipeg native), another called "Ugly Jones," a pitcher everyone calls "Horse" whose last name is Byrd, and catcher Thurston Woods, better known by "Piney," the clubhouse's resident "character," fond of donning a cowboy hat and serenading the boys with his acoustic guitar.

Even before he knew he was dying, Bruce convinced himself what he felt for Katie was love. Now it's reached the point where he wants to name her the new beneficiary on his life insurance policy. Henry agrees, then does nothing, in what is the closest thing to dramatic the book gets.

Upon learning that their teammate is on the fast track to his last stop, the other Mammoths decide that far from being a stupid, half-assed catcher who greases his hair with pig snot, Bruce Pearson is in fact five foot and eleven inches of the greatest damn backstop ever!

Once the season is over, Bruce returns home to die.

A baseball novel is never really just a baseball novel. The insights into the game are really insights into life if you want them to be. Bang the Drum Slowly concerns itself with friendship. Despite their clashing cultures, Henry Wiggen and Bruce Pearson make good friends, and a good battery,

But does Henry Wiggen make a good storyteller? He eschews contractions and writes ersatz dialogue, two decisions that could alienate readers. "Do not be mad. They do not wish me to leave without a friend"; "We are only human and cannot do everything." This artificial loftiness made it impossible for me to lose myself in what I was reading, and that's half the battle lost.

Then again, doesn't a general rule of writing state that all good dialogue is "unrealistic"? I suppose. Doesn't a general rule of living state all good is "relative"?

I remember reading Baseball Confidential until it literally fell apart. Ball Four is a major league pitcher ripping curtains and leaving stains and he's a Peanuts fan, so of course that's mandatory. I wish Bang the Drum Slowly lived up to its reputation, but it just doesn't.

(And if wishes were horses, glue would go a hundred bucks per ounce.)

Director-John D. Hancock
Writer-Mark Harris

A Major League Baseball squad wearing black-and-white pinstripes? Wait, don't scamper off just yet--it's just the New York Mammoths.

Their star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) doubles as an insurance salesman and triples as a writer. His sweet-natured battery mate Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro, in his first major film role) is living on borrowed time thanks to Hodgkin's Disease. The two men make good friends, if not great ones. City and country, slick 'n simple, a winning smile met with a dopey slanted grin.

Mammoths manager Dutch Schnell (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia), a crusty, profane sum-bish, is bemused after his ace signs one of the most unique contracts he's ever seen, one which effectively marries Wiggen to Pearson for the rest of their careers, and believes that there's more to Wiggen's request than meets the eye.

(Schnell's suspicions are understandable; who'd be such a big fan of some bumpkin who wears a cap underneath his batting helmet?)

Bruce swore Henry to secrecy re: his condition, but then neglects to kill him. Word spreads from man and man, until the once-fractious team rallies 'round the dying catcher, racking up wins and climbing the standings. Near season's end, Bruce's condition worsens. He constantly feels cold and struggles to put one foot ahead of the other. The Mammoths win the championship without him, and he dies shortly thereafter.

Bang the Drum Slowly avoids melodrama. Unfortunately, it also avoids drama.

Listen here: if I can overlook Michael Moriarty's obsession with legally denying women dominion over their own bodies to appreciate his talents, and even admit that he steals this movie, conservatives should have no issues doing likewise with Meryl Streep, et. al.

Oh yes, Moriarty outacts Robert De Niro. De Niro is too understated, and his accent (which he went to Georgia to learn) is bush league. Vincent Gardenia is friggin' hilarious as the skipper who knows he's being fed cock 'n' bull stories but can't quite link the letters together, a man who demands the team contact "Hodgkin," as the doctor may have discovered a cure that he just hasn't gotten around to sharing with anyone yet.

A couple great performances do not make a great movie. The Natural, there's a great baseball movie. A League Of Their Own, absolutely. The Sandlot, why not. 42, apparently (I really must get around to that one). Bang the Drum Slowly is just some film I watched.

The last line of the book is the last line of the film, since Mark Harris knew he'd nailed it: "From here on in, I rag nobody." Harris keeps much of the dialogue, which is the risk run when trusting novelists to adapt their own work for the big screen.

One is set in the age of "The Beav," the other in the decade of the Bee Gees. Henry's wife goes from good and pregnant housewife to sassy chick with hair so long and straight it screams for a beaded headband. Adult men wear smiley face shirts and lavender suits (although not at the same time).

Both book and film share an identical message: people should be good to one another. Bruce may be dying, but so is everyone else. He's just going faster. So, really, why talk badly about anyone?

Piney's locker room performance of "The Streets of Laredo" (the song which gave the book its title) is, unsurprisingly, better in my head. Still not the worst thing I've ever heard from a guy named Thurston playing an acoustic guitar.

The book is dull as a paperclip. Being a published writer in the 1950s was a no-lose gig, considering people had fewer distractions. The laboriously folksy style would have removed me from the story had I stuck more than two toes in. One of the "Top 100 Sports Books of All-Time" shouldn't be so aimless and amateurish.

The movie is Brian's Song with two white guys. Speaking of race--and we were--Mark Harris smartly left Bruce Pearson's racism out of the script. Ways to turn off potential sympathizers don't come much more surefire.

No sport has inspired more writers than baseball. It's America's most venerable game, the first games dating back to the 1870s. A nine-man lineup, identified by the numbers on their back and underneath their feet. No clock. One man throws a little white ball at another man waiting to swing at it with a smooth wooden club. A full major league season totals 162 games, nearly double that of NHL hockey and NBA basketball, and ten times that of NFL football. 

Baseball is also the ultimate in male bonding, especially between father and son, meaning many tales (be they fictionalized or not) err on the side of maudlin crud. But it's also blessed us with books like The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. There will probably never be a baseball novel I'll love as much. It's also totally unfilmable. Another blessing, I suppose.

Bang the Drum Slowly is Al Pacino's favorite movie.

I'm assuming Al Pacino has seen more than twenty movies.

Can someone with untreatable Hodgkin's Disease even play a professional sport?

Catcher Bruce Pearson wore #15 for the MLB's New York Mammoths. He died young of a terminal illness. Catcher Thurman Munson wore #15 for the MLB's New York Yankees. He died young when his personal Cessna crashed and burst into flames.

"It is not love, said I." Seriously, now!

Jay-shush, but do I adore superfluous slo-mo. 'Most as much as doctor visits.

It was this or The Natural. I really crapped the bed, huh?

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