There's nothing bashful about Henry Wiggen. "I believe that someday I will be counted amongst the immortals and have my statue in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown," he says. He hasn't gotten there yet, but he ought to. Henry Wiggen is one of the great characters of baseball fiction, ranking with Ring Lardner's Jack Keefe and Alibi Ike. He has been around for a quarter century, but because of the vagaries of publishing he has been harder and harder to find in the bookstores. Now he is making a comeback.
He is doing so thanks to Avon Books, a paperback house that, through its Bard series, is keeping in print a number of works of distinguished modern fiction. Under the title Henry Wiggen's Books ($2.95), Bard has collected all three of Mark Harris' Wiggen novels: The Southpaw (1953), Bung (he Drum Slowly (1956) and A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957). It's a fat book, 600 pages of rather small type, and a joy not merely for anyone interested in serious American fiction.
In fact, at some point in the development of the Wiggen saga, Harris seems to have worried that readers might miss the essential seriousness of his labors. He prefaces Bang the Drum Slowly with a passage from Wright Morris' novel The Huge Season that reads in part: "...a book can have Chicago in it, and not be about Chicago. It can have a tennis player in it without being about a tennis player." He needn't have been so defensive. That these novels are about much more than ballplayers and ball games is transparent to anyone who reads them attentively.
All three are "by" Henry Whittier Wiggen, who, as he writes The Southpaw, is 21 years old and has just completed a singularly successful rookie season with the New York Mammoths. A left-handed pitcher, he won 26 games in the regular season and two in the World Series and he was voted Most Valuable Player and Player of the Year.
The story of Henry Wiggen begins in the hamlet of Perkinsville, about halfway between New York City and Albany. His father is a pitcher of considerable local renown, and Henry grows up with baseball at the center of his life. He soon enough becomes a sandlot and high school star and is signed by the Mammoths, in December 1949, at the age of 18. He trains with the team at its Florida camp in Aqua Clara, and is assigned to Queen City in the Four-State Mountain League, a Class AA franchise. In September 1951, he goes up to the Mammoths, scared but cocky.
Wiggen is in the Lardnerian tradition of brash, heroic innocence, but Harris is a more complex writer than Lardner, and Wiggen's progress through the three novels is scarcely the same as Jack Keefe's through the You Know Me Al novel and stories. Keefe is basically the same naive blowhard at the end as at the beginning, but Wiggen matures considerably. His self-confidence is undiminished, but he has a clearer understanding of the world and his own place in it. Perhaps Harris' finest accomplishment is that he makes this growth not only believable, but also wholly natural.
It is unfair to say of Harris, as some reviewers have, that he is a Lardner imitator, but a few similarities certainly exist. Through Wiggen, Harris writes in a carefully controlled vernacular; his spelling and punctuation are those of a writer of limited education (though not as limited as Keefe's).
His ballplayers do a lot of the things Lardner's did: harmonize, brag about their romantic conquests, cuss out the owner and the manager. And Wiggen's excuse making would do Alibi Ike proud: "They scored three off me in the third on a pop-fly home run by Brooks."
But Lardner's fictions are observations, sardonic reports on people and environments. Harris' are explorations that go deeper. The Southpaw, though superficially the record of a baseball season, is really about Wiggen's gradual disenchantment with the game's power structure and his evolving determination to be his own man. Bang the Drum Slowly, which tells the sad story of a young catcher's slow death from Hodgkin's disease, is about the preciousness of life and time. Only A Ticket for a Seamstitch, written when Harris appears to have tired of his subject, is little more than a diverting tale.
The Southpaw is the best of the lot. It skillfully employs the natural structure provided by the baseball season; it is funny, subtle and affecting, and with rough eloquence it breathes life into the romance of baseball and youth: "Even now...I think of Squarehead Flynn and Sad Sam Yale and the whole of that spring from Aqua Clara north, the singing, the bus ride, the trains. Patricia Moors and Scooter Lane, day games, night games, laughing and crying, Patricia crying in Aqua Clara, mostly a happy time, for it was a good club, maybe even a great and immortal club, and that was the best spring of my life, the spring when the dream come true."
Bang the Drum Slowly is moving without being morose, a genuinely touching look at the capriciousness of fate and the ways we try to cope with it; A Ticket for a Seamstitch is an entertainment, a pleasant one but a mere postscript to the others. Taken as a whole, however, the trilogy is a substantial work. Toward the end of The Southpaw, Henry Wiggen asks, "Why does not somebody write 1 decent book about baseball...?" In Henry Wiggen's Books, Mark Harris has done just that—and quite a lot more.