Friday, October 17, 2003

Hey, don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that this year's media hype regarding the Cubs' and Red Sox' runs at a World Series berth has gotten a lot of people into baseball. It's a terrific sport, both to play (well, I couldn't play hardball at age 37 but if there were a softball beer-league around here I might go out for it) and to watch, and I'd say I'm a semi-serious fan of baseball, the NFL, and soccer. I feel qualified to pronounce on these three sports. You won't see me pretending to know much about basketball or tennis or college football, or anything about golf, ice hockey, rugby or cricket, though.

Now, I love newcomer fans, and am confident that in a season or two of watching a sport say, weekly, a newcomer fan learns as much about the sport as any veteran fan knows. But please don't make any pronouncements until you've reached that point where you know what you're talking about! Thank you. This has been today's Cranky Little Sermon.

English novelists often make this mistake when writing about the US; they insist on putting in scenes where two Americans talk about baseball, and they just get it all wrong. (Note: I think this is why few American novelists stick cricket matches in their novels.) Here's a scene from a novel called On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a good middlebrow writer. His most famous books are Birdsong and Charlotte Gray.

The male lead in the story is Frank, a hard-boiled hard-drinking old-style Chicago reporter; the story takes place in 1960. Frank takes the female lead, Mary, to a working-class bar in New York, where he is greeted by the bartender with one-of-the-boys familiarity. I think the purposes of the scene are to help establish Frank's macho working-class credentials, which Mary finds romantic and attractive, and to show Frank taking Mary into his "sanctuary", the place he goes when he needs somewhere to go. It's supposed to be a step in the growing intimacy between them.

"Still shouting for (rooting for) that bunch of losers?" said the barman as he pushed the beer over to Frank.
"Listen, we have the most valuable player in the National League."
"Ernie Banks? He's just a big black (Wrong word, unfortunately, for a working-class guy in 1960 to use about an African-American. The most PC expression you'd have gotten was 'colored') slugger."
"Oh yeah? And the Yankees? You're nothing without Yogi. Think you're still so great?"
"We are great, mister, that's the truth. Mickey Mantle, he's the best you've ever seen."
"More speedy than a slugger, more sluggy than a speedster, and less of both than either. Was that what the boss said?"
"Hey, don't give me that Stengel crap. Pardon me, ma'am. He don't talk good, but he can sure coach (manage) a team."
"Do yourself a favor. Get over to Chicago and see a real game."

Now, Mr. Faulks has looked up the basics. He's got Ernie Banks on the Chicago Cubs, and Banks did win the 1959 MVP. Correct. He's got Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle on the New York Yankees, and he's got Casey Stengel as their manager. Correct. Good job. But no real baseball fans in 1960 would have carried on such a preposterous dialogue. I've made the three necessary vocabulary changes in parentheses above, and in addition:

1) The Yankees had just won the 1959 World Series. And the 1958 one. And the 1957... They were by far the dominant team in baseball and Frank would have known that. He wouldn't have made any boasts about the very mediocre Cubs of that time in the home of a Yankee fan.

2) Frank, as a knowledgeable fan, would never have compared Mickey Mantle with Ernie Banks. Mantle was one of the two or three best players in baseball, along with Willie Mays and Stan Musial, in the late fifties. Banks was good, but there's no comparison between the two. Also, Frank would have known that the MVP award is not always given to the guy who's really the best player. Frank wouldn't have dissed Yogi Berra's replacement, Elston Howard, who was also a fine player, though admittedly not in Yogi's class.

3) Frank and the bartender wouldn't have referred to themselves as "we" when talking about their teams. (They do this in England, I think, because the fans are dues-paying club members and so they feel quite justifiably that the club is "we", but it doesn't work like that for pro teams in the US. Exception: College sports; if you went to the university you're cheering for you can say "we." My buddy John Ortiz, who went to KU and roots for Kansas in basketball, is allowed to say "we won", because he went there. But if he ever says "we won" again when referring to Notre Dame, the college football team he roots for, I'll smack him one.)

You do that in any sports bar in the US--"I'm a big Packers fan and we're going to win the Super Bowl this year!", the answer you'll get is "Who's we? You on the team? What position do you play, assistant waterboy?"

Maybe I'm picking nits, but Mr. Faulks just made several of the sort of mistakes that jar me out of the suspension of disbelief necessary to keep your interest up.

Here's an example. I once saw a mediocre little movie called Reality Bites. It's the early nineties. Ethan Hawke is a cool slacker dude who is trying to win the love of alternative chick Winona Ryder. He's so cool he sings in a band. He gets frustrated by his undeclared love during one of his band's gigs that Winona is in attendance at. So they break into the Violent Femmes' song "Add It Up", which is intended to show Ethan's feelings toward Winona.

Now, no cool band would EVER cover "Add It Up", because it's too well-known. It's too obviously intended to be shocking, what with the schtick about the psycho narrator of the lyrics who's got an Oedipus complex and a gun. Maybe it was shocking the first time we heard the record in about 1982, but it's become much less so after a couple of hundred hearings.

Anyway, the key "shocker" line of the song is "Why can't I get just one fuck?" In the movie, though, Ethan Hawke sings it as "Why can't I get just one UUHN?" And we see him looking right into Winona's eyes while he's singing and she gets all like choked up and pissed off simultaneously and runs offscreen. I think.

See, singing this song is supposed to be like Ethan's big proclamation of his love for Winona. But NOBODY covering "Add It Up" would EVER sing "UUHN" instead of "fuck". If you don't sing "fuck", the shocker line becomes non-shocking, and then what's the point of singing "Add It Up"?

This is absolute total proof that Ethan is not cool, but an idiot. This display of unequalled dorkiness and uncoolness makes us immediately lose all sympathy with him, if we ever had any, which we probably didn't anyway.

See what I mean about taking a wrong step and making your audience lose their suspension of disbelief? Avoid doing so. Don't just assume that an old song (symbol of coolness; back in '82 "Add It Up" really was a symbol of coolness. It lost that status within about two years) is still cool when it's become cool's antithesis. And don't just assume you can write dialogue that rings true about a subject that you know absolutely nothing about. This is why I avoid writing about working-class Irish life like Roddy Doyle does, and I avoid writing about thirtysomethings in London like Nick Hornby does.

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