W.P. Kinsella is best known as the writer of Shoeless Joe, the book that Field of Dreams was based on. However, that just scratches the surface of the many short stories and novels he has written over the years, not just on baseball, but also on others subjects, such as those related to the “First Nations” of his homeland of Canada.
And for Kinsella’s 80th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the release of Field of Dreams, many of his short stories have been put together in Tachyon Press’ The Essential W.P. Kinsella.
While I, of course, was most interested in the baseball stories within and only skimmed some of the other works, rest assured that this is a big and comprehensive collection of many of Kinsella’s works, and while some are better than others, you cannot deny that this is a big and diverse assortment of stories that Kinsella clearly put a lot of care into.
So, without further ado, here are some thoughts and reviews on some (not all- I’ll admit two or three of the stories just sort of failed to stick with me) of the baseball stories within Essential W.P. Kinsella:
The first baseball story in the collection is “How I Got My Nickname”, a strange fantasy tale where a dream-version of W.P. Kinsella talks about playing with the 1951 Giants, who all share his family’s love of books and languages. A weird story, but kind of cute when you think of it as a childhood fantasy.
In “The Night Manny Mota Tied The Record”, a writer (again likely a thinly-veiled Kinsella) is given the opportunity by some sort of cosmic arbiter to die in Thurman Munson’s place, and that such a opportunity is given to people anytime a well-known figure dies a premature death. An interesting concept, and in some cases it feels like something that would be better suited for a individual bigger than Thurman Munson (they off-handedly remark on presidents and civil rights leaders that had been spared or condemned due to how their cosmic substitutes decided). I wasn’t sure what to think about this story, and the ending was pretty corny. Still, a neat concept.
“Searching for January”-which runs with the fact that no trace of Roberto Clemente was ever found- is about a man in the late 1980s who discovers a time-lost Clemente drifting onto a Latin American beach, having apparently not aged a day since his fateful flight and thinking it’s now January 1973. This set-up actually ends up being much better than it sounds, and this is arguably my favorite baseball story in the collection, although the ending is just like an episode of The Twilight Zone I remember seeing. Despite that, it’s a great little gem of a story, and I’m somewhat surprised it hasn’t been made into a short film or anything.
Oh, and if anybody wants to make this into a short film, call me, I’ll write the screenplay.
“Distances” is about a old pitcher with the uncanny ability to remember the distances between major city who convinces a Iowa high school team to let him pitch for them in a game against a company team. It’s alright, I guess, but is a bit plodding at times.
“How Manny Embarquadero Overcame” is a twist on the the tale of a Latin American player lying about his age or identity, except it also involves voodoo, Detroit, and an ugly dog. It has a great first line that pulls you right in, but sadly the story doesn’t quite pay off the good lede.
Whether “K Mart” is a story about baseball or merely a story that involves baseball is a question the story itself asks. It’s more about the growing up and regrets of a guy who returns to the town where he played pick-up ball for the funeral of his first crush, if you ask me.
The final story of the collection is “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa”, the story that was later expanded into Shoeless Joe and then adapted into Field of Dreams. It is roughly (if I remember Shoeless Joe correctly) the first chapter of that book, in which Ray Kinsella builds the field and then Joe Jackson shows up, eventually asking if he was in heaven (“No, it’s Iowa.”). It’s a good read and you definitely could see why it was ultimately made into a full book and then the movie, although you can’t help but look at some of the parts that are dated or different from the movie that eventually was made from it (for example, in the story, it’s mentioned that Wrigley Field doesn’t have lights, but in the movie, it’s specifically mentioned that even Wrigley Field now has lights).
Speaking of which, at the end of the collection, there is a short piece by W.P. Kinsella about that story, the book, and the movie adaptation, and I learned some things from it. For example, his working title was The Kidnapping of J.D. Salinger (Salinger would become the Terrance Mann character played by James Earl Jones in the film), and the voice in the film that speaks to Ray was Ed Harris.
Overall, I found The Essential W.P. Kinsella something of a mixed bag. Kinsella’s writing is great when it’s on, but can be a bit grating and hokey when it isn’t, and while there are a lot of good ideas in his stories, not all of them are always followed upon. Still, I’d recommend this book, especially if you liked Field of Dreams and the semi-magical properties it ascribes baseball.
Note: I was provided a review copy of this book.