Thursday, February 10, 2011

Windy City Crab Bids JU Adieu

If you spend enough time contemplating contemporary mainstream book and movie reviews, first of all god help you. Second, you may notice that the zeitgeist is a self-reinforcing thing. Mainstream reviews tend to be written by middle- or upper-middle-class urbanites, and they therefore privilege whatever it is that class has been led to believe is important at a given moment. The avatars of this phenomenon are dull people like The New Yorker's David Denby and The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani (although she's really in a special class of cluelessness), and their subjects inevitably provide frameworks for other lazy writers of similar ilk. I'm not telling you anything Stuff White People Like hasn't already, and I do truly wish I had a better or more original take. But there are some icons so mysteriously beloved that I can't figure out how to account for them other than by some quasi-mystical projection/identification complex perpetrated by minimally talented white people —I'm talking about you, tuneless Rufus Wainwright... and you, whiny and smug David Sedaris... and most of all you, dead John Updike.

I've never much cared for Updike and his self-regarding mewlings about the marital woes of Northeasterners and so on, but I'm provoked to flog him anew by the recent issuing of his weirdly famous article on Ted Williams in book form. I should say that the book came to me as a very well intentioned Christmas gift, so this is no reflection on the gifters. Certainly, this is the sort of book many baseball fans like. But really, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" is one of the most overpraised articles in all of late twentieth-century American journalism. Give me Gay Talese any day.

First published in The New Yorker late in 1960, "Hub Fans" is perhaps the progenitor of the intellectual-class fascination with baseball. I am a reluctant member of this class, so I can assure you it's at least as noxious as you might suspect. Rather than simply enjoy a ballgame for what it is, Updike slathers the experience (and Williams) with treacle—"Hub Fans" is where the phrase "lyric little bandbox" was first applied to the dank, low-rent confines of Fenway Park—and egregious book-larnin'. It is not enough for Updike to trace the unsteady arc of Williams's career, with its interruptions on account of military service, its contested relations with the press, and its up years and down ones. No, Updike has to compare Williams to Jason (of Argonautical fame), Achilles, and Nestor. He must liken Williams to an Alexander Calder mobile, and he must declare him both a humanist and a seraphim, of a standing with Cardinal Cushing.

In short, Updike can never let you forget that he went to Harvard—or as he so coyly puts it, "to college, near Boston."

"Hub Fans" does have its nice turns of phrase, but even short as it is—the book version is substantially padded out with footnotes and another essay on Williams that Updike wrote later—it becomes interminable in its self-regard. It is the forefather of the George Will school of condescending baseball writing, a genre made all the worse by its insistence that it is nothing of the sort. I'll lump in the Ken Burns style of lyricism here as well—no more, please, no more!

Baseball is a game. It's a complex, open-ended, and satisfying game, for sure, but to call it more than that is too often self-serving. When I skip out of the office for a day game, it's not like I'm going to the library to brush up on my Greek, nor am I confronting truths about the human condition, other than that a fan in a crowded stadium on a hot day will inevitably be in want of a large beer.

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