10.29.2009

The Brothers K

The Phillies got off to a great start last night, beating the Yankees 6-1 in the first game of the World Series. I am hoping (as always) for a seven game series. I hate to see the season end. At most, I've got six games to enjoy, plus whatever old games I can catch on MLB TV, until Spring Training. Currently, I have Nolan Ryan's last no-hit game saved to the DVR, just waiting for the right miserable winter weekend when I need a lift. And Gaylord Perry's 300th win game awaits me, too. I'm praying they'll re-play the Kirk Gibson Miracle Home Run game between now and spring.

No doubt I will score both of those historic games and several of the Series games. Scoring a baseball game is a creative outlet for me, not to mention a great way to keep your head in the game. I came to scoring late in life but now I am a fanatic. I feel guilty watching a game without scoring...

I have a love affair with baseball. Like most boys born in the 50's, the passion started young. For me, it began playing catch with my Dad, matured through Little League and became unrequited in the Pony League, when my skills no longer matched my desire. But my love continued vicariously through Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, John Roseboro and the rest of Walter Alston's LA Dodgers.

Baseball was (and is) an art form, passed down from generation to generation back then. Now, that father/son bonding via The Greatest Game doesn't happen so much. It did (and still does) with my two boys. And luckily, Mrs. LD enjoys the game, too. Baseball has been a glue, one of the shared, ongoing experiences that defines our family. Something to all enjoy and share together.

That's why, no matter how bad the economy gets, I will not give up our Durham Bulls season tickets (four rows up the steps, section 200, with the fourth seat in dead behind home plate). That's why (well, one of the reasons) I bought that Chrysler convertible. I wanted us to drive home from the games with the top down, still talking together about the game with the cool rush of air around us. I wanted to create the future, when, with me long gone to the never ending season, one of they boys might say to the other something like: "Remember when we were little and Daddy had that convertible, and we'd ride home from the game with the top down? That was fun." Something to hold on to, now and later.

But now the season is close to ending. The only good thing about that is taking my battered copy of David James Duncan's novel The Brothers K off the shelf for the annual winter read. This is my favorite novel and not just because baseball and its binds is a significant part of the narrative.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, hailed as one of the great works of literature, acts as Duncan's touchstone. Both novels portray a strong patriarch, four brothers (with similar characteristics in both works) and a family dealing with themes of religion and free will, morality and the faith (or lack thereof) that creates one's beliefs and guides one's actions. Duncan's title, other than as a short form tie to Dostoevsky, is ironic in that "K" is the symbol in scoring a baseball game for a strikeout.

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov's view of Christianity had a strong effect on Dostoevsky (and no doubt Duncan) and that view plays out--in my mind at least--as the most significant theme in Duncan's work, if not both. It is a view of Christianity that allows redemption and "resurrection" as an earthly possibility, via sons who pay for the sins of their father through sacrifice, resulting in a more unified and universal world family. In this case, the father's sins are not those of "Papa Toe", the boys' father, but rather the sins of any of us responsible for this wicked world.

What else do we pass down to our children other than baseball? What else unifies us, for better or worse?

There is plenty of sacrifice in The Brothers K. Through the draft dodger, the conscientious objector who is sent to Viet Nam, the philosopher son and the narrator Kincaid, the reader will find himself, even if not a child of the sixties. This is, after all, a work that uses the inglorious sixties (and baseball) to explore universal and timeless themes.

There are two pristine first editions of The Brothers K on the bookshelf awaiting my sons. Soon they will be ready.

From the publisher:
David James Duncan's first novel, The River Why, met with such enthusiastic praise for its journey of self-discovery that it became a contemporary classic, with readers comparing Duncan to J. D. Salinger, Ken Kesey, and John Irving. Yet, as one reviewer noted, "His [style] is not merely a patchwork quilt....His is a genuinely new, genuinely original voice in American fiction, a voice which is not quite like any you've read before." (San Jose Mercury News)

In The Brothers K, Duncan amplifies the considerable accomplishment of his first book as he centers this tender and powerful story around a Pacific Northwest family in the early '60s. The Chance family is wild about baseball and cantankerous about religion. Papa is a gifted but luckless minor-league pitcher whose big-league hopes are fading. Mama is a devout Seventh Day Adventist, constantly in motion to save her wayward sons. When a mill accident crushes Papa's thumb, and Mama's inexplicable fanaticism threatens to shred what little the family has in common, parents and children find themselves embattled over the ideals represented by baseball and religion.

It is young Kincaid, the easygoing middle child, who chronicles the humor and spiritual beliefs that alternately sustain and confound this family in a small Washington mill town. And it is in his maturing voice, as his brothers leave town to enter one of the country's most bewildering decades, that we hear the inescapable tensions wrought from one American generation testing another's vulnerabilities. Through the Chances, David James Duncan asks sublime questions about life, self-sacrifice, and enduring love in an ever changing world.
LD

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