Sunday, August 19, 2018

Book Report: "Shoeless Joe"

Shoeless JoeShoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the grand scheme of baseball media history, Kinsella's novel boils down to a promising but sometimes frustrating rough draft for a masterwork of a film. Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson's adaptation is a water-into-wine creation of divinely inspired brilliance akin to Ray Kinsella's carving of a time-traveling ghostly baseball field out of Iowa corn stalks.

Robinson pruned away intriguing but extraneous characters, honed B+ monologues into A+ rainmakers, and lopped off the gratuitous down-home metaphors Kinsella crams into every other line as though he were writing his book by Midwestern-fried Mad Lib.

The lone way the book has one up on the movie is its bold inclusion of a then-living J.D. Salinger as a main character, rather than the movie's understandable cop-out at making its recluse author fictional. At least that choice allowed the casting of the legendary James Earl Jones in probably his finest performance of his career.

Kinsella's book also dazzles for the way it drips with obscure baseball knowledge. In pre-internet days, Kinsella made himself into a walking Baseball Reference, and it's doubtful a book was ever penned by a man who loved the game more.

I could have done without the late-book speech by one of the characters excised by the film that comes off as lunatic ranting rather than the baseball scripture-drawn homily that Jones enunciates in the movie. I was also put off by the way Ray buys a gun and uses it in his "kidnapping" of Salinger. For a protagonists already well on the verge of insanity, the move made it tougher to cheer him on as he followed his Joan of Arc-like vision to parts unknown.

I admire the book, but I truly love the movie it became. That's the difference between goodness and greatness. Between W.P. Kinslla and J.D. Salinger. Between Moonlight Graham and Shoeless Joe.

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