This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
If all you know about the late W.P. Kinsella's stories is that one of them gave birth to the film "Field of Dreams" and the inventively hopeful but now sadly overused phrase "if you build it, he will come," then you are missing the magic.
The magic of a gallant Roberto Clemente, the baseball legend who vanished on New Year's Eve 1972 when his plane went down in the Atlantic while on a mercy mission, still rafting through the ocean and time decades later "searching for January."
The magic of a 2,614-inning game between a mythical squad of Iowa all-stars and the 1908 Chicago Cubs, the last baby bruins to win a World Series (Lord, please let that change this year), in a titanic contest that history knows nothing about but that Gideon Clarke is determined to prove actually took place.
The magic of a Cubs manager who sacrifices his shot at glory and his team's chance at breaking the longest championship drought in professional sports in a quiet quest to save the world from the apocalypse.
William Patrick Kinsella, who died Sept. 16 at age 81 in his native Canada, gave us those movingly mystical tales and oh so many more. He published dozens of books and scores of short stories. Though even his agent described him in a New York Times story as an "irascible and difficult man," he earned a name north of the border for his yarns spun by a Huck Finnish narrator named Silas Ermineskin about his crass but endearing sidekick Frank Fencepost and an equally lovable band of Hobbema Indians.
But Kinsella became a literary sensation for his baseball fiction. At the top of the order: "Shoeless Joe," Kinsella's 1982 prize-winning novel that sprang from his earlier short story and ultimately sprouted the Oscar-nominated "Field of Dreams."
" 'Shoeless Joe' was just like a baby," Kinsella told author Mike Shannon in "Baseball: The Writers' Game." "I wrote it in nine months, and it was virtually unedited."
The book is packed with more gems than the baseball diamond fictional farmer Ray Kinsella erects. There's the title character, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, tainted by the Black Sox scandal of 1919. There's the famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger (Terence Mann in the movie). There's Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, a real-life player who made it to the majors but never batted. And Eddie Scissons, who, at 91, is the "oldest living Chicago Cub."
Kinsella butters his sentences with sumptuous images, each one leaving you hungering for more. Witness the chatter between Joe and Ray at the close of the first chapter (and the end of the original short story):
" 'This must be heaven,' he says.
" 'No, it's Iowa,' I reply automatically. But then I feel the night rubbing softly against my face like cherry blossoms; look at the sleeping girl-child in my arms, her small hand curled around one of my fingers; think of the fierce warmth of the woman waiting for me in the house; inhale the fresh-cut-grass smell that seems locked in the air like permanent incense; and listen to the drone of the crowd, as below me Shoeless Joe Jackson tenses, watching the angle of the distant bat for a clue as to where the ball will be hit.
" 'I think you're right, Joe,' I say, but softly enough not to disturb his concentration."
Kinsella is a master of magical realism. The key, he told Shannon, is to introduce fantasy in a "straightforward" way. "I don't beat around the bush with it at all. I just go right ahead … like when Ray meets Doc Graham on the streets of Chisholm, Minn. … and discovers that it's himself who's been thrust back 15 years in time. … I just let it happen, and for that reason I think it's easy to follow and easy for the reader to suspend his disbelief and go along with it."
Even more satisfying than the haunting beauty of "Shoeless Joe" are Kinsella's "Iowa Baseball Confederacy" a grittier potion with more grace, more insight, more depth, more baseball and many of his short stories, especially "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon" (a copy of which Kinsella signed for me with the inscription "Go the Distance" when I met him two decades ago at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City).
In the latter story, manager Al Tiller, a decent man but a loser and somewhat of a joke in the baseball universe, inexplicably leads the Cubs to the cusp of their first National League crown since 1945 and their first world title since 1908. But with ominous signs of a superpower standoff dominating the daily headlines, a prophetic archangel and vivid dreams warn him over and over that if Chicago wins the pennant, World War III will break out. Judgment Day will follow. The End will come.
Armed with that knowledge, the tortured manager sees his pitcher Eddie Guest walk two Los Angeles batters in the ninth inning of a 2-2 tie in the decisive game for the pennant. The starter is done, finished, cooked. Tiller knows it, and lights-out closer Bullet Boyd is ready to come in and douse the Dodger rally. (Here's hoping current Cubs manager Joe Maddon, heading up a club with the best record, is entering this fall's playoffs without shouldering any biblical burdens.)
Tiller treks to the mound, where the final scene takes place, confronted with a choice: Plug in Boyd, and Tiller's Cubs may win but humanity loses. Keep Guest in and the Cubs lose, but the world certainly wins.
" 'Don't throw the curve,' he said to Eddie Guest, and patted his shoulder. In the bullpen he saw Bullet Boyd throw his glove to the ground.
"Then, honor intact, Al Tiller slouched toward the dugout, prepared to suffer."
I still choke up when I read those concluding lines as I did with the news of Kinsella's death. Then I remember that his wondrous words and works live on.
So, dear Bill, may your stories, like a blistered ball in one of your majestic home runs, continue to rise and rise and rise ... toward the stars.