The Shot Heard ‘Round the World (continued)

Don DeLillo’s Underworld starts with a set piece about that mythic baseball playoff game won by Bobby Thomson’s home run in the bottom of the ninth, and echoes of it recur throughout the novel. A few years ago, I thought of DeLillo’s portrayal of that day again in an unlikely place—waiting in line at Kennedy airport for a flight to Rome. I found myself in conversation with the man behind me who was a professor at a university in Naples. He told me that his specialty was Italian-American literature. I had heard of many academic concentrations, but never of this one. I asked what authors interested him and he mentioned Richard Russo. I was somewhat taken aback. When I have read Russo, I only thought that I was reading an American novel, not an Italian-American one. His list did not include Mario Puzo, but he praised John Fante, an author I had never heard of. (Because of this conversation, I have since read Fante’s Bandini Quartet­, which I had trouble finding. My copy was shipped from England. These novels are quite good, and I should thank him for putting me on to them.) He went on to talk about DeLillo, and I asked him about his reaction to Underworld, and he was effusive. I asked if he had trouble understanding that baseball game at the beginning of the book, and he gave a charming smile and chortled that he did not have a clue about what was going on. I did not try to explain. There is something so particularly American about that baseball game that I did not think a few minute’s conversation on the topic could accomplish much with a foreigner, and, furthermore, while I did feel that the game had some sort of significance besides its mere outcome, I was not sure why.

          Finally, after reading about the game by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Red Smith, I read for the third time DeLillo’s take on it, and I began to understand at least some of the reasons why that playoff lives in American consciousness. Perhaps every moment in American history is some sort of watershed, but this game encapsulated aspects of American history and past culture and foretold changes that were to come.

          In 1951, baseball provided a peaceful connection to the past. “You do what they did before you,” DeLillo says. The Bobby Thomson game was played at a time when America was thinking it could put the sacrifice and horrors of World War II behind it and carry forward a peaceful world. Baseball reminded us of that past. DeLillo has Gil Hodges, a Brooklyn player in that game, say the Polo Ground is “a name he loves, a precious echo of things and times before the century went to war.”

          Baseball also then resonated with a wide swath of Americans, or at least American males. Red Smith, writing a few years after the game, noted that almost every American male had played some version of baseball, whether it was baseball itself, or softball, stickball, five hundred, punch ball, kickball, or myriad other games. In 1951, it was America’s sport and somehow represented a perpetually youthful America. DeLillo writes about Thomson that “he is forever Bobby now, a romping boy lost to time. . . .”

Baseball is just a game, but it could feel more momentous. DeLillo writes, “The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.” And a particular game could feel as if it fit into the tide of American history. Russ Hodge’s producer says about Thomson’s home run, “Mark the spot. Like where Lee surrendered to Grant or something.”

          We readers of Underworld know, however, what its characters did not: that dominance of baseball was going to fade. A column by Red Smith makes that point. He had driven to Florida for baseball’s spring training, where many major league baseball teams prepared for the regular season. He said that once on these drives he had seen baseball and all those other games being played by men and boys in the various town along his route, but now he no longer did. DeLillo foreshadows this change by having the broadcasters ask how can you explain the 20,000 empty seats in the stadium. The sport’s hold on America was still strong, but it was waning.

(concluded September 30)

Snippets–Sicily Edition

We thought we were in the line for the flight to Rome where we would make connections to Palermo, but we were wrong. We were not the only ones to have found the signage (when did it become “signage,” and not just “signs”?) unclear; others traipsed after us to the new queue. The man behind us said something amusing about our situation, and we started talking when we settled into our new line.

He described himself as a “scholar.” He was a university professor from Naples. He had been visiting an ethnic center at the University of Minneapolis and had then spent a few days in New York City with his daughter who was traveling with him. They were now headed home.

His field was a new one for me—Italian-American literature. He studied American authors of Italian descent. When asked for examples, he offered Don DeLillo and Richard Russo. I was surprised. I have read novels by both these authors and had never thought of them as Italian-American. I regarded both as quintessentially American. Russo’s capturings of small-town life and academia just seemed to me to be, in the best sense of the word, Americana. DeLillo has portrayed other aspects of the country to me, often its paranoia, but again, I thought of him simply as an American writer, not an Italian-American writer. Standing in line to check in for a flight was not the time for a deep literary discussion, but in another setting, I would have liked to have heard the Neapolitan professor talk about how, if it all, he saw that the Italian ancestry of Russo and DeLillo influenced their novels.

In response to a question, the professor, without hesitation, said that Underworld was the best of DeLillo’s books. I told him that I had read the book twice. The first time I was mostly confused by it, but the second time I thought that it was a masterpiece. I continued that each time, however, I had considered the opening chapter marvelous—some of the best writing I had ever read. Its setting is the legendary playoff game that decided the 1951 winner of baseball’s National League, which ended with the dramatic home run by Bobby Thompson. The professor smiled and said that the chapter was just incomprehensible to him. I guess that one needs to know something about American baseball to grasp the genius of the piece.

We talked a little about some of the Italian authors the spouse and I have read. He speculated that the first of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan books was written by more than one author. If so, the spouse and I had not noticed. The professor taught me how to pronounce the last name of Salvatore Quasimodo, the Sicilian poet who won the Nobel prize for literature, but I did not master it and asked my guide again in Sicily. The “s” sounds like a “z,” and the emphasis is on the second syllable, not the third as we would say for the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The professor’s daughter said that she was finishing college in the spring. She did not know what she would do then, but she was studying “languages.” As one who cannot speak anything other than English, I noticed the plural.

The professor said that he was now studying a John Fante novel. I stated that I had never heard of Fante, and the professor responded that he was mostly known for writing B-movie scripts, but that he had also written some outstanding novels. On one level, it was humbling to have an Italian inform me about an American writer; on the other, I like reading good authors whom I have not read before, and I have now vowed to read Fante’s Bandina Quartet.

As we finally made it to the head of the line, we exchanged contact information, and the spouse and I told the daughter she could stay with us if she visited New York City again, which seemed to excite her since she had enjoyed New York so much.

I thought that this was a good start for our trip to Sicily. Before even boarding Alitalia, I had had an interesting conversation and learned things from a person whose path I would like to cross again.

(continued November 21)