Baseball Story Magic

ONE of the ballparks in Phillip Lowry's "Green Cathedrals" is the field in Dyersville, Iowa, that Hollywood built for the 1988 film "Field of Dreams." The field, the film, and the novel from which they both grew have come to stand as resonant symbols of baseball as a generational link, with ballparks the shrines where these bonds are forged. Blame W. P. Kinsella, if you will, for all this obsession with old ballparks. His 1982 novel "Shoeless Joe" got folks to thinking ballparks could be magic places.

There is great magic in Kinsella's work - in "Shoeless Joe" (1987), in "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" (1986), and in his newest novel, Box Socials (Ballantine, 225 pp., $20). The magic in Kinsella's stories, however, is not the baseball, but rather his marvelous sense of character and story and his incandescent use of language.

"Box Socials," as the novel's first paragraph tells us, "is the story of how Truckbox Al McClintock almost got a tryout with the genuine St. Louis Cardinals of the National Baseball League, but instead ended up batting against Bob Feller, of Cleveland Indian fame, in Renfrew Park, down on the river flats, in Edmonton, Alberta, summer of 1945 or '46, no one can remember which...."

But Truckbox Al's at-bat against Bob Feller is only the backdrop for this tale, which is really about living out the Depression in rural Canada and coming of age amid a whirl of "box socials and whist drives, community dances, or ethnic weddings" at the local community hall, where the women would invariably consort to find a husband for their daughter; the young men would bid up the price of the box lunches prepared by those daughters rumored to be "hot-blooded...."

Taut and lyrical, at turns melancholy and hilarious, "Box Socials" continues to advance the art and the reputation of one of the most original voices in contemporary letters.

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