Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Sheets of Sound
2008-04-16 05:35
by Alex Belth

I am reading and thoroughly enjoying Nicholas Dawidoff's new memoir "The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball" (due out on May 6th). It is the first thing I've ever read by Dawidoff though I'm well familiar with his name. One of the first gifts my wife ever gave me was a book that Dawidoff edited--Baseball: A Literary Anthology, a fine collection. I've also long heard good things about his celebrated Moe Berg biography. Dawidoff, who began his career writing for Sports Illustrated (here is a brief sampler--pieces on Andy MacPhail, Sandy Amoros and Berg), has written several other books, including a memoir about his grandfather, a Harvard professor.

His new book is ostensibly about growing up as a Red Sox fan, but it's not really a baseball book at all. It is about Dawidoff's childhood, growing up in New Haven with his mother, a school teacher, and his sister. And it is about his father, who was mentally ill. There is so much in the book that resonates with me. Dawidoff, who is about eight years older than me, had a beloved aunt who lived in Croton, a New York suburb, the town my mother moved to when she and my father split up. I went to junior high and high school in Croton and my brother, sister and I would visit our father in Manhattan on the weekends. Pop lived on the Upper West Side. My grandparents' apartment was on 81st street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, not far from where Dawidoff's father lived (I actually took a handful of guitar lessons when I was in high school from Peter Tork who lived on the same block as Dawidoff's pop). While my old man was not mentally ill, his alcoholism made him unpredictable, and at times, terrifying.

I can see myself in Dawidoff, a bright, careful, somewhat effete kid who constantly played sports, who was devoted to his team and who worked very hard at fitting in. His was a house without a TV, so Dawidoff was raised on Ned Martin and Red Sox radio. The descriptions of what the team and players meant to him, the order and companionship they gave him in a fatherless upbringing are wonderful. The book is permeated by sadness and yet it is hopeful too.

Dawidoff writes honestly and with empathy and is a true craftsman. For instance, check out this description of going to visit his father's office in midtown:

If we were in New York on weekdays, my father might take us to the office. How transporting it was to be in the middle of everything in the center of Manhattan, moving alongside the early crowds going to work with my father. From the sidewalk outside my father's building I saw the men in business suits surging uphill from Forty second Street, many of them carrying a folded-over newspaper and a briefcase as they went ducking into Chock full o'Nuts, emerging a minute or two later with a steaming paper cut in hand. They were all in a hurry. There was a delicatessen across the street, and at lunchtime through the window I could see them rushing in, yelling out their sandwich orders, and rushing out. It seemed to me that in these rhythms of the masculine professional day, I was watching how my father lived without me around.

My father worked on the eighth floor. Bolted to the wall in the corridor beside the entrance door to the suite were engraved and burnished nameplates for each of the lawyers in the firm. There was not a nameplate for my father. Inside were the firm's lawyers with their suit jackets off and ties loosened, clients waiting to see the lawyers, a secretary, and the braying visitors paying calls to the other room that the firm rented out in the suite—a succession of enormously obese men rushing in and out from consultations with the tenant who turned out to be the parking garage tycoon Abe Hirshfield, a man so wealthy he could have bought an entire office building for himself.

My father was tucked in the back of the suite, near the emergency exit and across from a wall lined with shelves holding leather bound legal casebooks. He had a heavy desk, an extra chair, and one window with no screen that in summer was kept open a crack so that you could hear the M-1 Madison Avenue bus exhaling into second as it rumbled slowly uptown, could smell the city, which in those months had a pleasantly rank bouquet like the one that enveloped a kitchen when someone ran hot sink water into a pot after overcooking a meaty stew. Once the M-1 had crossed Forty-second Street, aside from the soft toots of horns and the anguish of a distant siren, it was quiet in my father's office. The olive green rotary dial telephone seldom rang unless it was my grandmother checking in on us, and nobody came inside, though once in a while, if we'd closed the door, I'd open it to encounter a lawyer consulting a casebook. Those lawyers would seem startled to see me, and it would take a second before they said, "Well hi there, young feller."

I love the clear and exacting image of the "rank bouquet" smell of New York in the summer, how he goes back-and-forth between long sentences and shorter ones. Dig this, from an on-line interview with Dawidoff:

I think the thing is, that part of the fun of writing books is experimenting with language. Although I don't think anyone would call me a pyrotechnic writer. I try and put a lot in each sentence and spend a lot of time with each sentence. I want each sentence to sound like me. My grandfather's hatred of cliches is definitely my hatred of cliches. I really like to play with language. I really like to see what language can do, and I like to be precise. I really want words to be active and be somehow the spirit of language to represent the spirit of the subject. That's not in any way unique to me, but it's something I think a lot about and I sweat a lot over. Each sentence I write, it seems to me I write more slowly. This is not because I am trying to be more complex. I see more and more potential for language. Maybe as you husband and compress all the potential into whatever you are going to make it just takes longer.

Any fan of good writing will appreciate this book. You don't have to love baseball or even the Red Sox to admire it. But for Sox fans of a certain age it will be especially poignant.

2008-04-16 09:22:17
1.   JL25and3
The Moe Berg book is excellent.

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