Here’s one of those rare (for me) cases of the movie being better than the book. Shoeless Joe, the basis for the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, is a decent-ish fantasy swathed in backward looking heteronormative tropes where a beleaguered white messiah-figure brings redemption to all around him. The parts of the story that interested me involved the baseball field and the players from the past who were resurrected when main character Ray Kinsella built it in his cornfield. Unfortunately, those parts of the book do not take up the bulk of the story. Instead, we have to slog through the tale of Ray’s journey to gather up his disciples while also fighting evil corporate America (destroyer of all dreams) while also healing his family while also inspiring J.D. Salinger to join him and write again. I just threw up in my mouth a little. Ready? Let the hate review begin!
“Shoeless Joe” refers to Joe Jackson, one of baseball’s great players who, along with his Chicago White Sox teammates, was suspended permanently from baseball due to his involvement in fixing the 1919 World Series. This story’s narrator, Ray Kinsella (yes, the same last name as the author of this novel) loves baseball and learned to love it from his late father. Dad had been a minor league catcher in his youth, and one thing that Ray and his dad could bond over was baseball and the raw deal that Shoeless Joe received for his involvement in the scam. For Ray, what happened to Jackson was a “symbol of the tyranny of the powerful over the powerless.” This is a theme that comes back in Ray’s life as his business savvy brother-in-law tries to take Ray’s farm away from him in the service of Big Industrialized Agriculture. Anyway, one warm summer night, Ray hears a voice — an announcer’s voice — saying “If you build it he will come.” “He”, of course, means Shoeless Joe, and “it”, of course, means a baseball field. Actually, Ray just builds a left field for Joe, but he learns quickly that if he builds an entire field, then the other White Sox players might show up. Ray’s hope is that his deceased father will also appear and get to play as catcher. Ray’s lovely wife Annie and his young daughter Karin can see the field and players on it as Ray does, but not many other people can. You can call this fantasy or magical realism or whatever, but I found this part of the story interesting.
Unfortunately, even in this first chapter introducing the fascinating concept of an Iowa cornfield with a baseball field filled with ghost players, problems are evident. First, Annie is a flat character who seems to exist only to tell Ray how much she loves him and that she supports whatever he wants to do. We know that she’s a hot red head who wears very tight jeans (which WP Kinsella describes in detail several times). When Ray says he has to build a ball field, she says, “…if it makes you happy you should do it.” When he says he has to leave in the spring because of the other pronouncement he has heard (“Ease his pain”), Annie says, “…you do what you have to do.” Never mind that they have a 5-year-old daughter and a farm to run (without machines because Ray doesn’t hold with that modern tech that prevents you from having your hands in the soil). Annie exists to affirm and support Ray in his quest to build the field and in his showdown with her own brother. She never complains or worries about money or about where the hell Ray is for a month while he is traveling up east to find J.D. Salinger. Oh look, there’s the next problem!
The J.D. Salinger angle of this story is TERRIBLE. At least in the movie, they had the sense to change this to a totally fictional character. Ray is a fan of Salinger, and when he hears the second announcement— “Ease his pain” — it’s obvious to Ray that this means he has to ease J.D. Salinger’s pain. What is his pain? Well, after reading old interviews, Ray decides that Salinger, who is also a baseball fan, is lonely. “He hasn’t seen a live game in twenty-five years; he needs my memories.” The part of this novel where Ray travels to New Hampshire, stalks Salinger and gets him to go to a ball game with him is more fantastical than the 1919 White Sox showing up in a corn field. Salinger, or “Jerry” as Ray will come to call him (just barfed in my mouth a bit again), finds himself strangely drawn to Ray and his mission, whatever that is, and they head off to Montana because of a vision they both had at Fenway Park.
Eventually, Ray and Salinger wind up back in Iowa where Ray’s long lost twin brother has appeared. This is another aspect of the novel sliced out of the film, and I applaud that decision. Ray’s twin Richard looks exactly like him and has been running a carny for 20 years, traveling all over the US. He missed their dad’s funeral but felt drawn to find his brother again. Another character rightly cut from the film is “the oldest living Chicago Cub” Eddie Scisson, who once owned Ray’s farm and delivers a bizarre soliloquy about baseball as religion and redemption. Once everyone is in Iowa, Ray’s brother-in-law is poised to take possession of the farm and destroy the baseball field; the ghost players including Ray’s dad are ready to play; and J.D. Salinger has an epiphany. Baseball magic happens and healing occurs.
What promised to be an interesting fantasy novel turns out to be a bloated, self-serving story of a middle class white guy fighting “the man” and trying to bring back the good old days. Those who don’t share Ray’s vision can’t see the magic on the field and miss out. I haven’t watched the film version in a while, but I think a lot of the stuff I disliked about this novel was cut for it. You might be better off watching Field of Dreams than reading this.