CannaCorn is not hysterical realism. That's for the record, for anyone who might fear that my using the words realistic and hysterical to describe CannaCorn means it’s a satiric novel of too many pages. It is a satiric novel, of course, but it’s about baseball, and no one on Earth could write a thousand-page baseball satire—not Don DeLillo, not Thomas Pynchon nor David Foster Wallace (were he still alive), not even Con Chapman, who, however, has written the most hysterically funny realistic satire about baseball that’s ever been written. (I can’t prove that, but I dare anyone to come up with a more hysterically funny one. Pretty much the rest of this review will be examples from CannaCorn to intimidate anyone eyeing this challenge.)
Example 1: Right at the get-go the teammates of a Spanish-only-speaking player, who’s just arrived at the park, set him up by telling him they’re wearing back armbands because the manager’s wife’s decorator’s poodle has died. They give him a shirt with an armband to wear when he meets the manager, who speaks no Spanish. Translations go awry, and the manager ends up believing the player’s wife has died, and orders black armbands for the entire team for the next game.
Example 2: The players get even with manager, Russell “Rusty” Rhodes (his older brother got dibs on the nickname “Dusty”), when he hits the high point in a team pep talk with “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM!”
“‘Excuse me, coach?’ Riley ‘Chip’ Hilton, Jr. spoke.
“‘Yeah?’ Rhodes replied.
“‘There’s a ME in TEAM. ME is first person like I.
“‘I guess you’re right, Chip.’
“‘How ’bout MEAT?’ Michael ‘Treasury’ Bonds spoke up. ‘There’s a MEAT in TEAM.’
“‘There’s MATE, too,’ Hilton added. ‘EAT MEAT,’ Bonds continued with emphasis. ‘I ATE some MEAT. They’re all in there, mon,’ Bonds said in a lilting accent that betrayed his Jamaican parentage.
“‘Okay, enough of that,’ Rhodes said.
“‘How ’bout MAT’ and MET?’ Bonds continued.
“‘And TAM,’ Hilton suggested in a sort of logorrheal trance.
“‘What does that mean?’ Bonds asked.
‘It’s a Scottish hat—a tam o’shanter.’
“‘Can’t count that. It’s a foreign word.’
“‘Treaszh, this isn’t Scrabble.’
“‘TAME maybe--’ TAM doesn’t count.’
“‘Guys, let’s focus,’ Rhodes said as he held his hands up, palms down, in an effort to quell the linguistic uprising that had broken out.
“‘AT,’ Delfayo Newbill said absent-mindedly as he stroked a bat with a steel rod. ‘You got an AT in there.’
“The room fell quiet as heads turned towards the sound of metal rolling up and down the wooden shaft.”
Newbill’s ending this potentially infinite jest was incidental to his mania of stroking bats with the steel rod because it “Gits the magnetism out of ‘em,” something he said his barber told him was a result of all the “big buildings” in Worcester. “Big buildings attract magnetism into the city ’cause they metal,” Newbill contended, expanding the explanation into further absurdity until Rhodes, knowing better than to keep pushing, changes the subject. Rhodes puts up with the testy Newbill because, sent down from the St. Louis Cardinals to its farm team due to his unmanageable temper, he’s the Worcester Quahogs’ home-run star. This is not saying much, though, as the team itself is struggling to maintain its mediocre standing among its minor league rivals.
The star of CannaCorn (we’ll get to what the title means in a bit) is my least favorite character. Wait. Before we get there, here’s another Delfayo Newbill weirdity I can’t think of any better place than here to put it—a description of his African-American handshakes bar none: “He had several. One, a simple ‘high-five’; a second, a forearm-to-elbow slam; a third, a cross-wise slap with an up-down one-potato-two potato to finish it off; and rounding out the collection, a fist-on-fist knuckle bump. This was Delfayo’s way of insulating himself from contamination by the white world; he would consistently and capriciously change the form of congratulations he would accept from his Caucasian teammates.” Now, back to my least favorite character, the novel’s star.
Schuler Billings “Trey” Templeton III, the team’s executive vice president. This fey, overeducated son of the foul-mouthed, hardnosed Quahogs owner wants only to write the great American baseball novel and bed Nae Ann Embree, who is dating the team’s first baseman. This set-up gives us Shakespeareanesque romantic high jinks that also include Trey’s betrothed and the ubiquitous Delfayo Newbill. It’s complicated, trust me, and I came dangerously close to hysteria in the reading.
My favorite cringeworthy Trey disaster is his getting caught by the local newspaper’s sportswriter plagiarizing in a proposed feature for the paper a passage from The Great Gatsby. The reporter demands $25,000 to keep from exposing him, and it’s...dare I say, hysterical.
Then there’s the chaotic rhubarb scene in which a fight breaks out during a game in which the brother of one of the Quahogs plays for the other team. Of course Delfayo Newbill plays a starring role:
“In the liberal style of British boxing before the adoption of the Queensbury Rules, Newbill threw his arm around Jones’ neck and put him in a headlock. Players on both benches threw themselves into the fray, first among them Seanté Jones, who reached the engaged combatants first and threw a punch that hit Newbill flush on the right cheek and knocked him to the ground.
“‘What the hell you doin’, man?’ Newbill said, as he tasted warm and salty liquid in his mouth.
“‘He’s my brother you ponk,’ Seanté yelled, as he threw himself on top of the fallen base runner.
“There followed a confused battle in which friends of the Jones brothers attacked Newbill, teammates of Newbill attacked Seanté Jones, a fellow Quahog, and a Balkan atmosphere of internecine violence prevailed. As the parties were separated by blood lines and major league affiliations, Chip Hilton scored from third amidst the mayhem, and the Quahogs led one to nothing.”
I’d love to see Jonathan Franzen try to write a scene like that. No I wouldn’t—if Franzen wrote it, I wouldn’t read it.
Awright, it’s CannaCorn time. What in hell does the title mean? Franzen? Nah, he don’ know from peas. Here’s Trey explaining the meaning to his baseball-bored fiancé:
“‘Can of corn’ is a baseball term that refers to an easy pop fly, so-called because back in the days when baseball first became popular, before the dawn of self-service super markets, stock boys in grocery stores would roam the aisles and pick out customers’ selections. Employees would poke canned goods off the higher shelves with long poles, and an experienced stock boy could catch a falling can of corn with ease, hence the figure of speech, ‘can of corn,’ meaning a pop fly that appears difficult to catch but is actually an easy play for the fielder.”
Thanks, Trey, you jackass, I didn’t know that.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]