Thursday, December 30, 2010
"I feel like I'm always missing the mark in one of two directions: writing 'serious' lines, disgustingly lyrical sentences about the weather or whatever, like imitation Virginia Woolf, or I want to make a joke about boners. I want to write terrible, juvenile humor. Or have a shark fall out of a trapdoor, something nutty. So I'm constantly listing in one direction or the other; literal-lyrical or goofy-surreal. It's like: There we go, another four paragraphs about the violet cloud--the giant purple boner cloud in the sky...(Karen Russell, Tin House #46)"
When I use the word "discoveries," I need to clarify that I'm not claiming that I'm the first person to be introduced to new writers or publications. The true meaning is that I'm discussing personal discoveries. For my final post of 2010, I went through a long mental list of possible topics, seeing that, thanks to the holidays, my personal projects and readings have been temporarily sidetracked. I was tempted to spend a day doing a marathon reading of my New Yorker and New York Review Of Books back issues, and then write about a collection of themes and ideas that I had missed in the last year. I also toyed with the idea of simply doing a list of what I thought were my best posts of the year, but that was too self-serving for my tastes. So I decided to highlight two of the more exciting literary gems that came to my attention in 2010. While I've read and discussed a decent number of the writers who were featured in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list, the emergence of Karen Russell is proving to be too exciting to overlook. Also, I simply do not have the financial means or time available to devote to all of the terrific literary magazines and journals that are highlighting unknown voices and talents, even in the midst of a recession when such periodicals can be viewed as an unnecessary luxury. Some of these fine publications are struggling, yet surviving. And in 2010, I was fortunate enough to familiarize myself with the excellent stories and interviews of Tin House magazine, and in a wonderful coincidence, their final issue of 2010 features an excellent interview with Mrs. Russell, conducted by Elissa Schappell.
Russell's sentiment of combining the odd with the literary is evident in the few pieces I've read by her, but even going by such a scarce bibliography, her worthiness of being considered among the best young writers is never in doubt. In The New Yorker's July 26th issue, she published a stunning story entitled "The Dredgeman's Revelation," a tale involving a lonely Depression-era boat worker in the Florida swamps (Florida being Russell's native state). The man, named Louis Thanksgiving, escapes from his abusive adoptive father and ends up traveling through the Everglades, keeping a positive spin on the drudgery of his situation, attempting to define the notion of "friendship" among his fellow workers, and finally experiencing the surreal, horrifying fate of a man named Gideon. Without any real change in voice or narrative, Russell writes scenes of stunning imagery and metaphor:
"The doctor lit a Turkish cigarette and let out a little cry, a sadness that registered in decibels somewhere between a gambler's sigh and the poor woman's grief-mad wailing at the end of her labor--and then another cry joined the doctor's. The stillborn's blue face opened like a flower and he cried even harder, unequivocally alive now, unabashedly breathing, making good progress toward becoming Louis. The baby's face was reddening by the second, and the doctor plucked the cigarette from his lips like a tar carnation. He would have liked to keep on smoking, and drinking, too, but babies--you couldn't just stand there and toast their voyage back to nothingness (Russell 63)!"
And scenes of perverse oddity:
"In a scene that seemed as plausible and as horrifying as Louis's worst dreams, the birds descended on Gideon and hooked the prongs of their talons into his skin; perhaps a dozen of them lifted him into the sky. Gid's body shrank into the cloudless expanse. The sky that day was a bright sapphire, better weather than they'd had in weeks; for a long time, the men could see the shrinking pinpoint of Gid's black head, lolling below his shoulders, as if he were trying to work out a bad crick in his neck (Russell 69)."
In addition to excellent reviews, stories, and poems, the editors and writers of Tin House have a penchant for wonderful author interviews, and Schappell's discussion with Russell is no exception. Their conversation is witty and thought-provoking, and reminded me of the first issue of Tin House (#40) that I picked up, and the unabashed joy of literary discussion that was evident in that issue's interview with Colson Whitehead. Russell is modest about her success and talent, and a noticeable theme in the Tin House interviews is that the featured writers aren't being long-winded or outlandish in their breakdowns of the creative process.
"I've just stared to try to write longhand. The Internet is just this evil temptation. The hardest thing for me, as you can tell from this conversation, is ADD--just staying in my seat overcoming whatever distractions...The only process that works for me is what worked in grad school: trying to meet a terrifying deadline. I don't know how to do it, how to finish anything, without death swinging its fiery sword over my head. I don't know how to finish a draft without a lot of donkey kicks from anxiety and terror and self-loathing (Russell 109)."
It's also enjoyable to note the enthusiasm displayed by the interviewer. Elissa Schappell writes:
"Because critics, like scientists, relish classifications, the discovery of such a unique young talent has set off a flurry of attempts to label her particular genius. Her inventiveness and embrace of the absurd suggest George Saunders. Her macabre humor and Southern-gothic--or, in her case, swamp-gothic--sensibility make her kin to Flannery O'Connor. Ben Marcus simply defines her as 'a literary mystic (Schappell 104).'"
Swamplandia!, Russell's debut novel, will be published in February, all but assuring that 2011 will be off to an excellent start, literature-wise. I'm beyond excited to follow her upcoming publications, and I get the strong feeling that her writing, while stylistically different, will follow along the same path of Jonathan Lethem: works that are strange and sometimes genre-based, but grounded in serious talent and beneficial to the literary world as a whole. In the same fashion, while I want to open up my readings to other literary magazines, some that deserve more attention, I'm also looking forward to discovering new voices in Tin House. I devoted a decent segment of this site to essays and discussions of established, well-known writers, but the up and coming artists will continue to make their way to mainstream consciousness. While I'm not in a position to highlight these people or publications before anybody else, the joy of personal discovery can be just as, if not more, important.
A final note: I've said this before, but I cannot thank you enough if you're a regular reader of Chicago Ex-Patriate. As of now, I'll be following the same format in 2011, and while I probably have a very small audience, I find this outlet to be immensely satisfying, and I look forward to keeping up with everyone's websites and blogs. I've discovered a lot of new creators and mediums that way, and I hope that I'm helping you do the same. Happy New Year!
Russell, Karen. "The Dredgeman's Revelation." The New Yorker. July 26th, 2010.
Schappell, Elissa. "Swamp Odyssey: A Conversation With Karen Russell." Tin House Magazine, #46. Winter 2010.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
So far, I've only read snippets of the reviews for Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, along with one brief interview with lead actor Jeff Bridges that read like a publicity piece meant for nationwide syndication. The only solid understanding that I have is that the Coen Brothers set out to make an adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 comic western novel, not a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 film version, starring John Wayne. With any given book-to-film transition, it seems that there's either no attention given to the original source material, or there's too much to the point that the idea of a film narrative gets lost. Given that the Coens managed to create such a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, one that stood alone as both an original piece of cinema and a faithful evocation of McCarthy's prose, it's refreshing that they've put their focus on Portis and not just on a previous film version. However, I went into my recent screening of the newest film without having read the book, but with having seen Hathaway's version. Therefore, I could not help but make references between the two films, instead of taking it from the perspective of Portis's prose, so this review could very well go against what Joel and Ethan had in mind.
After her father is murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives to claim the body and to inquire about the law's efforts to bring Chaney to justice. Dissatisfied with the proceedings, she personally hires U.S. Marshal 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find Chaney, based on his mean streak and description of having "true grit." Insisting that she go along with Cogburn on the journey, she's furious to find that, on the scheduled morning, he's already left, leaving behind a note that she should go home. Feeling that Cogburn is stealing her money, she finds him and admonishes him, and reasserts her right to go with him. She's even more put off by the presence of La Boeuf, a cocky Texas Ranger who's after a reward, since Chaney also murdered a state senator. The three motives and personalities clash, with the two men unnerved by Mattie's youth and determination, Mattie and Cogburn angered with La Boeuf's arrogance, and Mattie and La Boeuf put off with Cogburn's drinking. After a late-night revelation following a shoot-out with two hidden outlaws, they learn that Chaney has taken up with Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang, leading to further, unexpected showdowns. For those completely unfamiliar with the plot, this is about as detailed as it can get without veering into spoiler territory.
Much like the 1969 version, the film struck me with the realization that strong cases can be made for Rooster or Mattie being considering the main character. While yet another case can be made for their journeys being a joint effort, their singular characteristics make them unique, but also vying for the top subconscious recognition. And, in essence, this goes for the actors as well; it's difficult to decide whether to mention an established veteran like Bridges first, or to open with the remarkable debut of Steinfeld. Even before the film opened, the consensus seemed to be the Steinfeld will receive an Academy Award nomination, and while it will be deserved if it happens, her strong performance goes above a simply "great debut," but also needs to be mentioned as a superior character interpretation. While Kim Darby held her own in the original, I couldn't help but think about her as somewhat whiny and annoying. Steinfeld, whether due to her age or her acting abilities, does a much better job of conveying Mattie's strong will coupled with life innocence. She shows fear in dire situations, but never seems to break down, even in tears. She handles the occasional comedic moment with muted, terrific timing, and her rapid-fire dialogue is delivered as a strong character, not a more sexist designation of a "strong female character" (this sometimes seems to be implied in film, as if women cannot possess a strong will and determination without it being 'quirky'). Cogburn and La Boeuf are not pleased with her dominating personality, but along with the audience, they accept it quickly, even if it's not out of social growth but more for survival value. Steinfeld possesses a lot of the acting traits that have made Ellen Page such a recognized talent, and hopefully with the right roles, she won't disappear like Darby ended up doing.
I did read the opening of Roger Ebert's True Grit review, and fully agree with the assessment that Bridges brings his own skills to the role of Cogburn, and not just a mimic of John Wayne's performance. Wayne's Cogburn was rough around the edges, blunt, but hiding a softer side in his stories about his ex-wife. Bridges does the same, but the softer side comes not from Cogburn's backstory (which is delivered in a sort of rambling afterthought monologue), but from the depictions of his alcoholism. In the first film version, Mattie chides him for his drinking, but in this one, his actions speak much louder. The audience sees him at his lowest points when drunk, whether he is insulting Mattie and La Boeuf or pathetically trying to show off his pistol skills while reeling from a night of drinking. There are no obvious morals presented; Cogburn is a drunk, and we're simply shown the effects of his choices. This is an obvious sentiment, but Bridges is simply one of the best living actors. From one scene to the next, he's tough, playful, and sympathetic, and his body language makes it much more than just a well-written character. Wayne's consistent iciness is replaced with a man whose faults are shown, rather than discussed.
I've long considered Matt Damon to be a truly underrated actor, and while he's much more intense than Glen Campbell was in the role of La Boeuf, he doesn't bring anything new to the character, except for toning down the original "pretty boy" vibe, and making him a little more intense. Portis's novel is said to hint at an attraction between Mattie and La Boeuf, and while it's mildly apparent in this version, Damon doesn't do much except for the occasional stare or glance in her direction. This is not to say that he does a bad job in the film; however, there's really not much to interpret, but there's never a moment where he turns in a bad performance. The issue may be that La Boeuf was poorly written, or written very basically. I thoroughly enjoyed the casting of Barry Pepper as Ned, a role originally played by Robert Duvall. In addition to a strong physical resemblance (at least in the looks of the role), Pepper makes the most of his short screen time as a villain. He sneers, he's direct, but not over-the-top. Ned's mentality is precise, and much like Steinfeld uses precision to create a strong character, Barry Pepper does so to create a thrilling embodiment of Old-West evil. It's a classically-styled job, and very evocative of Lee Van Cleef, arguably the best at portraying physical villainy.
The majority of the film does not carry the hallmarks of a typical Coen Brothers production, but there are the occasional scenes that Coen aficionados will appreciate. In a dark, uncomfortably funny scene, the Coens display the mindsets of nineteenth-century Americans: at the town's hanging, two white inmates are given platforms for their final words, ranging from repentant to defiant; when a Native American inmate begins his final words, the hood is quickly lowered over his head, and he is killed mid-speech. During the journey, Cogburn and Mattie come across a strangely prophetic "medicine man" dressed in bearskins, complete with a bear head fashioned into a winter hat. As the man speaks, he mixes "wisdom" with lunacy, and in the process becomes a noted Coen Brothers character, a mystical being who seems out of place, yet perfectly at home in the Coen universe (other examples include Tommy Lee Jones's partner in No Country For Old Men and the dybbuk in A Serious Man). Toward the film's end, Cogburn is attempting to rush Mattie to medical attention, and the scene is one of the more stunning atmospheres that the brothers have filmed: the characters seem to move in slow motion, whether by horse or on foot. The night sky is almost blinding with stars, filmed in an emotionally dimmed, dream-like state.
The Coen Brothers have created masterful additions to a variety of genres, yet True Grit feels like a simple homage to the classic Western. With the exception of the above examples, the journey of Cogburn, Mattie, and La Boeuf is directed in a very standard fashion, and compared to the Hathaway version, it's almost shocking that so much of the original build-up was cut out, but merely supplied by an older Mattie's voice-over. The suspense in the film works quite well, but the occasional scene seems to pale in comparison to the original. For example, the revelatory confrontation of Quincy and Moon is shot beautifully, but feels rushed. The newer version is filmed at night, whereas the original scene took place in the day, but felt much more suspenseful even in sunlight, as opposed to shadows and firelight. This is a very good film, but given the fact that the Coen Brothers have created characters and scenes that are worthy of the overused phrase "genius," it sometimes felt as if they kept themselves held too far back, and while the story stands on its own for the most part, it feels as if the combination of great acting with more directorial flairs could have made this one of the best films of 2010 instead of just a very good film from any year. Some filmmakers can make their trademarks distracting, but the Coen Brothers are the rare filmmakers who can leave an audience mildly disappointed by doing too little. True Grit may end up with scores of nominations in the upcoming award season, and while it's very well done, with the exception of Bridges and the revelation of Steinfeld, it was created by people who are capable of doing so much more.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
I have been much better about this lately, but for a stretch of essays that appeared here, I felt the need to add "explanations" for pieces that I felt weren't as concise, or had glaring issues that I still noticed after editing and posting. I still read the occasional sentence or notice a little piece of syntax that irks me, but for the most part, I let these stand on their own as I move on to other readings and postings for this site. However, I need to put that idea on hold, at least for this opening, only because the self-critiques are (hopefully at least somewhat) related to my latest selection: Zadie Smith's 2009 essay collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. If you glance to the right and look at the label tags, three labels are the most dominant, and two of them give me more than the occasional pause. The label 'criticism' originated to mean literary criticism, but now includes general critiques as well, lumping together two sometimes very different notions under one heading. 'Writing' originated as writing style, but grew into a label that accounts for the rare times that I discuss my own fiction writing, or writing in general. In the past, I've spend long stretches of time editing these blog labels, and while there's much more cohesion, I still make mental notes to make more distinctions. There's an excellent chance that I'm putting way too much thought into these meanings. However, Smith's own forward to the paperback edition of Changing My Mind offers me solace: "I'm forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith (Smith xi-xii)."
My reviews of essays collections have continually leaned towards writers whose fiction I admire, and therefore I assume that their non-fiction will be just as satisfying. I never make the mistake of confusing a writer's fiction from their non-fiction, but going into Zadie Smith's work, I felt as if I was reading her work for the first time; in essence, that's true. I read her debut novel White Teeth when I was around 19, and I remember enjoying it, but would be hard pressed to tell you what it was about. I re-read a lot of works that were lost on me in my late teens and early twenties, but in the majority of those cases, I retained at least a basic mental outline. For some reason, White Teeth almost completely evaporated. So while Zadie Smith's reputation continues to grow, Changing My Mind felt like a discovery of someone new, even though that's not the case at all.
The collection is divided up into five categories: "Reading," "Being," "Seeing," "Feeling," and "Remembering," and none of these labels are misleading. Right away, her literary essays proved to be extremely well-written, with quiet emphasis on her stunning breadth of theory, styles, and, yes, criticism. It's very rare that I read an essay about a book or an author whom I haven't read and feel just as compelled as if I'm reading a piece about one of my favorites, or one with whom I'm greatly familiar. Yes, having a better background on Zora Neale Hurston or E.M. Forster would have provided better illuminations for me, but Smith effortlessly glides between academic deconstructions and more personal opinions, not sacrificing one for the other. Her book reviews never go on tangents, even though all book reviewers (myself included) do that at least once in awhile. Her combination of styles and viewpoints is best evidenced by her remarks on George Eliot's Middlemarch. In the span of less than a full paragraph, Smith comments on historical styles, links it to contemporary writing, and provides historical background on Eliot, and not one word feels out of place or off subject:
"Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is less deceived...Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand. One of the reasons we idolize the nineteenth-century English novel is the way its methods, aims, and expression seem so beautifully integrated. Author, characters, and reader are all striving in the same direction. Eliot, speaking of Dorothea's mind, describes the process this way: 'The reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good.' It is a fine description of what all good novelists try to do, after their own fashion. But Eliot made a religion of this process; it replaced the old-time religion in which she was raised. Her imagination was particularly compelled by those moments when, as we have it in the vernacular, 'the scales fall from our eyes (Smith 33).'"
Depending on a given subject, it's almost startling to feel her shift in tone. Her discussion of literature and film are marked by steady, yet natural hints of wit and personal affections (or lack thereof). When the subject turns serious, especially in "One Week In Liberia," Smith immediately turns into a steadfast journalist, reporting emotional, evocative scenes and happenings, maintaining a beautiful writing style, but scaling it back, letting her gifts of written recreation provide any necessary emotions.
Lunch in La Pointe, the "good restaurant" in Monrovia. The view is of sheer cliff dropping to marshland, and beyond this, blue green waters. During the war the beach was scattered with human skulls. Now it is simply empty. In Jamaica, the tourists marry on beaches like these. They stand barefoot in wedding outfits in white sand owned by German hotel chains and hold up champagne flutes, recreating an image from a brochure. This outcome for Liberia--a normalized, if exploitative, 'tourist economy'--seems almost too good to hope for...Everywhere in Liberia it is the same: there are only the very poor and the very powerful (Smith 129)."
In a seemingly natural combination, her personal essays and journalistic pieces do merge as she writes about her family. In an attempt to help her father discuss his World War II experiences for a public BBC project, these two voices collide, and she's the first to admit it. By doing so, yet another layer is added to an already gripping piece, a sort of "behind the scenes" look at her discussions with her father, in conjunction with a personal narrative about exploring the beaches of Normandy and presenting her father's history of D-Day:
"I was a bad journalist to my father, short-tempered, bullying. He never said what I wanted him to. Each week we struggled as I tried to force his story into my mold--territory previously covered by Saving Private Ryan or The Great Escape--and he tried to stop me. He only wanted to explain what had happened to him. And his war, as he sees it, was an accidental thing, ambivalent, unplanned, an ordinary man's experience of extremity. It's not Private Ryan's war or Steve McQueen's war or Bert Scaife's war (of whom more later). It's [her father] Harvey Smith's war. If it embodies anything (Harvey's not much into things embodying other things), it is the fact that when wars are fought, perfectly normal people fight them. Alongside the heroes and martyrs, sergeants and generals, there are millions of average young people who simply stumble into it, their childhood barely behind them (Smith 232)."
The section of "Remembering" is composed of one piece, a remembrance and analysis of the writing of David Foster Wallace (easily the first name I would have mentioned if I had included examples in my opening thoughts on writers of both fiction and non-fiction). In the two years since Wallace's suicide, the reflections on him as a writer and a human being have been emotional, but haven't been much more than typical obituaries. Smith, however, pays tribute to him in the best way, offering analysis of the stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and actively hypothesizing about how Wallace's views on fiction interacted with his actual output. Even with just a small sample of his work being discussed, Smith ruminates on Wallace's mission in beautiful ways, and in the process, struck me about how much the world of literature lost two years ago.
"There is a weird ambient sameness to Wallace's work. He was always asking essentially the same question. How do I recognize that other people are real, as I am? And the strange, quasi-mystical answer was always the same, too. You may have to give up your attachment to the 'self.' I don't mean that Wallace 'preached' this moral in his work; when I think of a moralist I don't think of a preacher. On the contrary, he was a writer who placed himself 'in the hazard' of his own terms, undergoing them as real problems, both in life and on the page (Smith 289)."
So maybe with this review of Smith, I'm essentially asking questions that I already know the answers to, in a way. I have rarely found fault with the essay collections that I've reviewed here, since there have been more than a few that I stopped reading out of frustration or lack of interest, therefore not being in a position to effectively write about them; I at least do my best to see novels through to the end. However, Changing My Mind was a complete surprise in the best of ways. Hopefully in the next year I'll return to White Teeth and reconnect with her fiction, with more memories and evocations than my first reading. Going into this work, essentially knowing nothing but her name and face, I'm going to be much more attuned to Smith's writings. The empty designation to pin on her would be an "accomplished essayist," but in reality, that's true in the best of ways. She never overshadows her subjects, and provides much-needed personal distance when necessary, especially when the subject is not about her. It's a rare objectivity that's often lacking in contemporary non-fiction, but when she does pull herself back into a piece, it's never distracting. And I am applying the labels of 'writing' and 'criticism' to this piece, with their original intentions in mind.
Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Copyright 2009 by Zadie Smith.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
In any circumstance, December is the harshest month in which to discuss or write about baseball. Even though the 2010 World Series ended less than two months ago, it already feels like a truly distant memory. The winter meetings are under way, and the trades and free-agent signings are being reported quietly (Adam Dunn to the White Sox) and loudly (Jayson Werth's stunning signing with the Washington Nationals). Locally, with the exception of a page or two in the local papers on said winter meetings, baseball in Chicago is a literal afterthought, especially with the Bears leading their division and the Bulls trying to capitalize with their young, talented core. In a perverse paradox, I pass by Wrigley Field during my commute to work, and especially given Chicago's brutal cold snap in the last week, baseball seems so far away, yet so close (pitchers and catchers report in just over two months, much closer, at least subconsciously, than the two months prior since the end of the World Series). The recent death of former Cubs third baseman/announcer Ron Santo makes this off-season middle ground much more poignant. The only real activity around the ballpark comes from people snapping photographs of the candles, Old Style bottles, and signs that have formed outside in remembrance of Santo. I hate to obviously sentimentalize someone's death, but it seemed cruel that he passed just days before the Veteran's Committee elected former GM Pat Gillick to the Hall Of Fame. Santo was never ashamed to lobby the Veteran's Committee on his Hall Of Fame Credentials, especially given the fact that a.) he put up great numbers with the historically mediocre Cubs; if Santo had played with the Yankees or Dodgers, he probably would have been in the Hall years ago, and b.) he played with diabetes throughout his career, eventually having both legs amputated. He was also the greatest, most unabashed homer in broadcasting. When the Cubs were fighting for the playoffs in 1998, Santo's call of a late inning error by outfielder Brant Brown was an eloquent, journalistic "NO! NO! NO! NO!," one that will always be remembered in Cubs history.
I wanted to get that out of the way, since I've been thinking about this essay since before Santo's death. Given the above introduction, the title of this piece, and my status as a Cubs fan, one would assume that this would be a look at Ron Santo; instead, it's a look at a player who was not elected by the Veteran's Committee, and someone who in the last fifteen or so years has not been elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (the BWAA). Admittedly, it's about a player whom I never saw pitch, either live or on television, and whose stats are very good, but just shy of being stellar. However, despite my lack of personal knowledge, I was shocked that Tommy John wasn't elected by Veteran's Committee, along with Gillick.
Despite all of the evidence and commentary that hints to baseball lagging in popularity behind football and basketball, the Baseball Hall Of Fame seems to have the most respect of all the major professional sports, whether this is due to baseball being a game so old that it never pulls itself away from history, or if it's a case of the Baseball Hall Of Fame marketing itself in a much better fashion. The annual announcements, whether by the Veteran's Committee or the BWAA, have all of the hype and excitement of the Academy Awards: who will be named? And just as, if not more importantly, who will be snubbed? Much like the hype or build-up to any award, the anticipation can be just as great as the announcement. For the 2011 inductions, a lot of attention was given to the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and following the lack of votes, just as much attention has been given to his not being selected. Up until a few days ago, I simply assumed that Tommy John would be elected. When that didn't happen, I decided to look at his numbers and status, aided by a website that I've used and loved frequently in the last few years, Baseball-Reference.com. By going with numbers alone, and given baseball's history-long obsession with statistics, it's wonderful to see how John's numbers both frantically point to and sternly deny his status as a potential Hall Of Fame inductee. He pitched in 760 games over twenty-six seasons (good for 56th all-time, ahead of Hall Of Famer Warren Spahn, but below Hall Of Famer Don Sutton); he won 288 games, just twelve shy of the magic 300 mark (ahead of Bob Gibson, below Lefty Grove); his career ERA was a decent 3.34, but makes for a distant 319th place all-time, ahead of Robin Roberts and just ten spots shy of assumed future Hall Of Famer Roy Halladay). Yes, I'm just throwing numbers out there without any true analysis or concrete thoughts (I'm pretty much doing the same thing that Jayson Stark does every week). Again, numbers are subjective. Anyone can pick a baseball player at random and be shocked at how his numbers in a given category compare, for better or for worse, to players in baseball history. However, my firm belief in John's worthiness of the Hall Of Fame has nothing to do with his statistics, but in reality, everything to do with his statistics. Tommy John belongs in the Hall Of Fame for his longevity, and the fact that not as many people know ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction by its official name; it's much better known as Tommy John surgery.
Some people might (perhaps rightfully) take a step back and say "You think he's deserving of the Hall Of Fame just because his name is synonymous with a surgical procedure?" I say yes, and before I began this essay, a random Google search of just headlines shows that a lot of other people feel the same way. In the truest, non-cliched sense of the phrase, John was a trailblazer. He was the first professional athlete to have the procedure done, and the fact that his name is now attached to what is (at least in baseball circles) a procedure in which the major hassle is just the recovery time, really adds a legacy that is worthy Hall Of Fame, and makes his numbers that much more amazing. Three years after having the surgery, he won twenty games, finished second in Cy Young voting, and helped lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the National League Pennant. This isn't the same as Lou Gehrig having his name attached to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis after his death. Not to downplay Gehrig's condition (which may have been something else entirely), but John proved that success after ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction was possible, in a time when there was almost no hope of recovery from major elbow ligament damage. To use the often-tired phrase, some legitimate future Hall Of Famers have undergone the surgery: John Smoltz, John Franco, and Billy Wagner.
The "proper" close would be to make some obvious comparisons throughout baseball history, given that it's a game that's heavy on "firsts," "after 'x' happened, this happened,' and so on. And it's certain that if Tommy John had not been the first baseball player to undergo the surgery, then someone else would have, and thereby received unofficial naming honor. But even by numbers alone, 288 wins, even if it's just an average of just over eleven wins a year, is proof of John's skill and the fact that dozens of other ballplayers, both famous and under the radar, undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction and end up having healthy, productive careers. Perhaps the Veteran's Committee will end up electing him, perhaps not. But if I, as a quiet writer/baseball fan, can come up with some pretty strong arguments for John's credentials, then surely actual baseball veterans could do the same. As much as baseball is determined by what happens on the field, the happenings off the field can be equally important. For example, Dr. James Andrews, a surgeon who perform the majority of Major League Tommy John surgeries, has been touted as a possible Hall Of Fame inductee, dating back for at least the last three years. When one mentions baseball and technology, there can be wonderful examples of the advances made in the field, advances not named steroids or human growth hormone. If a logical case can be made for a doctor's contributions to the sport, why not the man whose name will forever be linked to the benefits and safety of a career-saving procedure? Imagine a position player having a total of 342 home runs, 1,331 RBIs, and 2,254 hits in a career interrupted by Tommy John surgery.
Actually, that's what Ron Santo did in his entire career with diabetes. Just thought I'd throw that out there.
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