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A GI Makes A Bet With Death And A Fantastic Baseball Game Ensues

In the past decade baseball has lost ground, and may lose more, to football in the marketplace, an arena in which numbers and crowd sizes are the significant indices. But baseball maintains a clear lead in its penetration of and firm grip on the American psyche. The elemental conflict between pitcher and batter is not going to yield easily to the somewhat similar struggle between quarterback and pass defender. This is evident, at least among serious writers who choose to illuminate their views of the human condition not only in sporting language but indeed in their themes. Bernard Malamud's The Natural and Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly are but two examples. And now some emerging writers are carrying the metaphor further with works of wild and soaring imagination.

Two years ago, as reviewed here (SI, Aug. 22, 1983), a remarkable first novel by Percival Everett called Suder told the hilarious and touching story of a fictional third baseman for the Seattle Mariners in a syncopated, highly improvisational style that read like jazz. If you missed it, look for it. Now comes another first novel, Things Invisible to See, by Nancy Willard (Alfred A. Knopf, $14.95), a kind of fairy tale for adults that seems to fly off into space, propelled by the author's imagination, like a baseball off a Louisville Slugger. As Everett did with Suder, Willard provides a strong, compelling narrative to carry the reader along on her flights of imagery and analogy.

With the very first paragraph of this 263-page book, Willard leaves no doubt about what kind of a tale this is: "In Paradise, on the banks of the River of Time, the Lord of the Universe is playing ball with His archangels." And in the second, the highly fluid plot begins to flow from its source: "In the damp night of the womb, when millions of chromosomes are gearing up for the game of life, the soul of Willie says to the soul of [twin brother] Ben, 'Listen, you can be firstborn and get out of this cave first if you'll give me everything else. Brains, charm, and good looks.' "

Ben balks at this arrangement, and Willie accepts his counteroffer: Willie gets what the world calls brains, but that's all; he will be righthanded and a rich man. (The flat feet will come in handy in a few years, as Willie already knows, when they keep him out of the Army.) Ben will be lefthanded, handsome, a charmer and a helluva baseball player. Willie grows up saving every penny and playing every angle: "When his mother needed change for cigarettes, he loaned it to her at a penny a week interest." He didn't date girls because he knew they expected a meal afterward. If Ben got a penny, he spent it on gum.

The scene is Ann Arbor, Michigan in the years just before and after the start of World War II. Willard, who grew up in Ann Arbor, teaches English at Vassar. She has written three books of short stories and eight books of poetry. It is often tempting to say that the eye and empathy of the poet are at work in her descriptions of small-city life, though poets are not our only reliable observers. But Willard's language is indeed poetic, and there is never a false or discordant note as she works out the destinies of the twins following the bargain in the womb.

Her story's climax is a baseball game. You have never seen one like it, though the logic of its appearance obliges you to accept it readily. When the U.S. goes to war after Pearl Harbor, Ben volunteers immediately. His luck runs out in a remote area of the Pacific, leaving him adrift in a life raft. After days of scorching sun, Death comes for him. This is some of their conversation:

"You know my name, Ben," said Death. "I hope you don't mind if I call you by yours."

"If I go with you now," said Ben, "can I ever come back? "

"Only one man ever came back in the flesh," replied Death, "and His was a rather special case."

"My dad told me if you make a bet with Death, he has to accept."

"You want to make a bet with me?"

Ben nodded. "If you win, you can take me on the spot. If I win, I want to live to be a hundred."

"The die is cast," said Death, with a smile at his own joke. "I suppose you brought your own dice? "

"I know only one game," said Ben. "Baseball."

And so the game is set: Ben's team of high school classmates against a team Death assembles from the all-stars on his roster, among them Gehrig, Mathewson, Plank, Jennings, Waddell. So many wanted to play, says Death, that they agreed to play at any position available. And they didn't need to warm up. "Some things you never forget," said Death. "Baseball is one of them."

Who wins the game and why—if either side does—and what it all means are among the questions that Willard leaves to each of us. Readers of the manuscript have concluded happily that the result is a triumph of "life" over "death." My view is that the author has deliberately presented us with a standoff, a tie. You may have other ideas.