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Bang the Drum Slowly ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (17)

    As I was a-walking the streets of Laredo,
    As I walked out in Laredo one day,
    I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,
    All wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay.

    I seen by his outfit that he was a cowboy,
    And as I walked near him these words he did sigh,
    Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story,
    I am shot in the breast and I know I must die.

    It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing,
    Once in the saddle I used to go gay,
    First down to Rosie's and then to the card house,
    Shot in the breast and am dying today.
    Get 16 gamblers to carry my coffin,
    6 purty maidens to sing me a song,
    Take me to the valley and lay the sod o'er me,
    I am a young cowboy and know I done wrong.

    O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
    Play the dead march as they carry me on,
    Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,
    Roses to deaden the clods as they fall

The quartet of Henry "Author" Wiggen novels by Mark Harris are one of the high water marks in sports literature and Bang the Drum Slowly in particular is, by any measure, one of the great American novels.  Writing before free agency made players millionaires and anticipating such groundbreaking tell-alls as False Spring and Ball Four, Harris treated sports realistically--players are work a day drudges who have off season jobs and swear and drink and womanize, management cares about little other than the bottom line, matters off the field effect performances on the field, etc.   This honest approach, distinctive narrative voice and poignant subject matter combine to make this an unforgettable novel.

I'm sure even most folks who haven't read the book have seen the movie.  Henry Wiggen, star left handed pitcher for the NY Mammoths, is called to Rochester, MN to pick up his roommate Bruce Pearson, the team's third string catcher.  Pearson has just found out that he is dying from Hodgkin's Lymphoma (which is now often survivable).  Henry who has always had a difficult relationship with Pearson, mostly because the catcher is such a simpleton, takes on a sort of protectors role, even ending his contract holdout with the club in exchange for a contract clause saying that Bruce can not be cut.  As the season unfolds, both Henry ends up having a career year and Bruce too begins to play well, Henry's sudden friendship (including even teaching him the game of TEGWAR--The Exciting Game Without Any Rules) giving him increased confidence in himself, and the team hangs around first place.  Then as fellow players begin to find out about Bruce's condition, they too lay off of riding Bruce and they start to gel as a team.  Finally though,  Henry gets a call from Red Traphagen, the team's retired catcher, now teaching school in San Francisco.  When Red tells him that the club has wired him several emergency contract offers, Henry knows that club management has found out about the illness.  They call Author up to a suite of the team's hotel to try Mau-Mauing him into releasing them from the clause and while he's there Dutch telephones Red.  Their conversation provides a nice illustration of the unique patois that Harris utilizes:

    Dutch said: "How much can I offer?"

    "The sky is the limit," said Patricia, "but use good taste."

    "Hello there, old pal," said Dutch.

    "Hello there yourself," said Red.  I could hear his voice but I could not hear the words.  "It would all
    sound fine to me," said Red, "except I can not leave here.  They can not find another man on such
    short notice."

    "To do what?" said Dutch.  "They can find 40,000 men in a minute."

    "I am making money hand over fist out here," said Red.

    "Horsefeathers," said Dutch.  "Nobody makes money in such a racket but the football coach.  I will
    up it 33 1/3 % and not one penny more."

    "I can not stand the noise and the excitement," said Red.  "I quit it for good and never miss it and
    am glad to be done with it.  Keep it and best of luck."

    "Very well," said Dutch, "I am sorry to troubled you."

    "Goodby", said Red.

    "Goodby," said Dutch.

    "Goodby", said Red.

    "I will up it 16 2/3 % more," said Dutch.  "That is twice the first wire plus 33 1/3 % plus 16 2/3 %.
    I am under orders to go no higher."

    "Sold," said Red, and Dutch hung up.  "Somebody remember and can Diego Roberto when Red
    hits town," he said.  "Every cloud got its silver lining."

Henry, of course, refuses to let the team off of the hook. The team ends up winning the pennant and World Series, but Bruce sickens and has to leave the team before the end of the season.

On October 7, Henry gets the call from Bruce's father informing him that Bruce has died.  Henry offers this affecting epitaph:

    In my Arcturus Calendar for October 7 it says, "De Soto visited Georgia, 1540."  This hands me a
    laugh.  Bruce Pearson also visited Georgia.  I was his pall-bear, me and 2 fellows from the crate and
    box plant and some town boys, and that was all.  There were flowers from the club, but no person
    from the club.  They could of sent somebody.

    He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad
    ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough.  From here on
    in I rag nobody.
 

The film version was on AMC the other day and I've been walking around the house singing the song.  Whenever she hears me, Brooke yells at me to knock it off because it's so melancholy and reminds her of the movie.  The book will have the same type of lasting impact on you; it's just one of those stories that stays with you.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
Other books in the Henry Wiggen series by Mark Harris:
    -The Southpaw (1953)
    -A Ticket for a Seamstitch  (1956)
    -It Looked Like for Ever

WEBSITES:
    -ESSAY: BRING BACK THAT OLD SANDLOT NOVEL (Mark Harris, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Smaller the Ball, the Better the Book: A Game Theory of Literature (George Plimpton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck by Mark Harris  Who Needs Enemies? (JAMES WOLCOTT, NY Review of Books)

FILM:
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Mark Harris (Imdb.com)
    -INFO : Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) (Imdb.com)
    -BUY IT : Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) VHS (Amazon.com)
    -Baseball films highlight best of the game (JIM TELIHA, The Oklahoma Daily)

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