In celebration of baseball season, my bookclub chose the book, “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella as our August selection, and I can sum up my feelings for this book in one word.
I wanted to love this book. I really did. After all, I love the movie “Field of Dreams” on which this book is based. I love baseball and I’m a sucker for strong, unusual characters. A character who follows the direction of a phantom voice by building a baseball stadium in the middle of his Iowa cornfield for a disgraced, deceased major league player is nothing if not unusual.
For the three people in the world who haven’t seen the movie, Shoeless Joe tells the tale of Ray Kinsella, Iowa corn farmer, who is compelled to follow mysterious directions that only he can hear. First he builds the baseball field, then Ray draws others into joining him at his farm where they witness the miracle of former major league players appearing from thin air at the height of their youth and promise, reliving a few precious moments in the outfield.
The problem with Shoeless Joe is that to believe the miracle and the implausible steps taken to get there, you have to believe in Ray. I just didn’t. While I was able to suspend reality in the movie theater due to Kevin Costner’s wistful portrayal of Ray, I just couldn’t conjure up the same feelings for the words on the page. Imagine a book trying to convince you of the existence of a seven foot rabbit named Harvey. Now imagine James Stewart trying to convince you. When Jimmy believes, you in turn believe.
It wasn’t just Ray that couldn’t capture my faith. I also didn’t care for the characterization of his wife, Annie. In the movie Annie was portrayed by Amy Madigan – one of the most underrated actresses around and a personal favorite of mine. Her Annie had an energy and charm that didn’t jump out of the book. Kinsella included at least seventy-five different descriptions of Annie’s red hair and freckled skin, but there was such little insight into Annie’s personality that, honestly, she came off as a little simple.
While Ray and Annie were disappointments, I did enjoy many of Shoeless Joe’s secondary characters. I preferred the use of J.D. Salinger in the book instead of the generic fictional author portrayed by James Earl Jones in the movie. However, I also felt this was cheating. Because Salinger was real and his reclusive nature well-documented, it wasn’t necessary for Kinsella to work hard at drawing a picture of the character in the mind of his reader.
Two characters that were well and fully developed, though, were Moonlight “Doc” Graham and Eddie Scissons. Graham was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film while Eddie was left on the cutting room floor. In fact, the only misstep in adapting this novel to a movie was in omitting the fascinating Eddie Scissons character. Doc Graham played in only one major league inning, but never discussed it and lived a full and complete life. Eddie Scissons, on the other hand, talked about nothing except the fact that he was the oldest living former Chicago Cubs player, he ordered a complete Cubs uniform to be worn at the time of his burial and he lived every moment in the shadow of his past glory days. His investment in the reputation he’d created for himself made it all the more devastating when he was outed as a fraud who had never been to the majors. The comparison between Eddie’s boasting lies and Graham’s silent truths was nothing short of heartbreaking.
Ray’s twin brother Richard didn’t fare nearly as well in my opinion. I never fully understood his role. It was mentioned that Richard looked exactly like Ray but for a childhood scar, and even their partners were both named Annie. I can only assume Kinsella was trying to draw a parallel in a way too deep and philosophical for my mind to fathom. All I can say is that Richard was cut out of the movie, a decision which I support.
I think most people agree that a book is generally better than the movie on which it is based. In a few rare occasions (To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), the book and movie are equally delightful. It is incredibly rare, then, to read a book and find that the movie is more enjoyable, but that is the case with Shoeless Joe.
Go see the film.
Shoeless Joe is that guy you like at the office who remembers to pick up a card when the receptionist retires and always refills the paper bin on the printer. You look forward to that time every morning when you meet for coffee and listen to his insightful commentary on the world at large. Unfortunately, when you finally go out on a date, you realize his flaws are so much more visible in a venue where he’s not at ease. He takes himself too seriously, his jokes need explanation and – to be honest – his pants are a little shiny. Also, those observations of his that you enjoyed together over coffee? Well, when you really listen, you discover they’re actually kind of silly.