Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Two Publishers (on a conversation between Polish publisher Jerzy Illg and me in Korea)


Although many, if not most of the writers I publish think of me primarily as a publisher, I think of myself as a poet, fiction writer, critic, and memoirist who is also a publisher. I love publishing, to which the 400-some books I have published to date attest. But my heart is in the process of writing, not in the art of publishing; indeed if I had a great amount of money (or even any money to spend on publishing) I would pay someone else to do everything except making the initial selection.

These feelings were apparent when I was invited as an author to the 2010 World Writers' Festival in Seoul, Korea. Similarly, Polish publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose Znak press publishes much of the writing of Czesław Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, felt delighted to be there as a poet—even though he had published just one thin book.

We both recognized that we (and perhaps some of other writers as well) were there only because of Ko Un's suggestion. Both of us publish Ko Un. But that didn't diminish the joy of being featured so prominently in banners and placards throughout the city and on the campuses of Dankook University. And I think we both admired each other's essay more than the writings of some of the prominent international writers and critics included in the event.

Both of us also shared a sense of humor about the conference, whose seriousness was, in some small way, subverted by the "continually reincarnated" boy-genius, who we both agreed Ko Un is, a man with the force and energy of eternal youth, accompanied by the attendant freshness of thought. Despite their roots in traditional Korean writing and their relationships with Western narrative, Ko Un's poems are full of an energetic spirit that break out impulsively with dissociative images and sounds. He is, consequently, both a traditionalist and an experimenter, in the Modernist sense of that word.

Although Jerzy seemed to take himself less seriously than I as a poet, we both shared a kind of mad passion for literature, and, consequently, for much of our lives we felt driven to become publishers. Despite the fact that Jerzy worked for a much larger and financially sounder publishing house, I felt, in the fact that for many years he suffered under the Soviet repression (a much harsher environment than my penniless one) that as an independent publisher he was one the few people I had met in a long time who could truly comprehend just how lonely and difficult (logically impossible) it has been to publish all the books I have without money and hardly any staff. Talking with Jerzy I suddenly felt very old and tired, but perhaps it was just the beer we were drinking that made me feel that way. Both of us enjoyed drinking, and were delighted to find the small bar where we chatted for several hours.

There we discovered, through those shared "difficulties," that in some profound sense we understood each other—not that we felt sorry for ourselves; we had both chosen, even if by accident, our roles. And both of us expressed our love and pride in our endeavors. We agreed we still love what we do—at least most days! Each of us, in our own different way, has lived a remarkable life, he as a close friend and ally to Miłosz, Brodsky, and others (he is the Polish publisher, for example, of Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature while we were visiting Seoul), I with a whole array of very different figures described in these pages. Accordingly, we felt a deep rapport.

Hearing Jerzy's descriptions of his youth when he joined an atelier in a Polish industrial town with no connections to culture, and where several evenings each week a woman sat reading the German texts of Hermann Hesse, studies of Eastern religion, and numerous other writings, translating them into Polish as she read—texts, totally unavailable in Polish, that revealed completely new worlds to him—brought tears to my eyes.

"When I first traveled to the West, to England," Jerzy continued, "I went into a bookstore and found, to my amazement, row upon row, in many editions, of my now beloved texts. I was astounded. There they were, in all their glory, waiting on the shelf for a people who no longer needed to care for them, while for me they stood upon those shelves as sacred artifacts. My wife was furious with me because I could not bring myself to leave that spot."

"How disappointed I was," continued Jerzy, "when I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I was attending an editors seminar at Stanford University—an excellent series of courses—and called Ferlinghetti, out of my love of Ginsberg and the Beats, to ask if could meet him. Finally, he agreed, and I went quite expectantly to the famous City Lights bookstore.

"After introducing myself, he growled out, 'What are you doing at a dreadful place like Stanford?' I tried to explain the wonderful things I was learning, but he waved it away.

"I switched topics, attempting to ask him about the important events surrounding Ginsberg's Howl, its censorship and the trial.

"'That's old business,' he grumped. 'Let's talk about something more contemporary and important!'

"'What do you think is more important?' I innocently asked.

"'I've just gotten back from San Salvador,' he pronounced, 'where the rebels are successfully overtaking the government....'

"'I'm sorry,' I responded, 'but I've lived years under Communist repression, and I do not sympathize with this.'

"He called me a Rightist.

"Tell me,' I came back, 'has there ever been a Communist or Marxist government that has lived up to its utopian claims? Look at Cuba or North Korea, etc. etc.'

"Needless to say, there was no more conversation between us. I feel saddened that one of my former heroes, who fought against government censorship, was now promoting governments that surely would not allow a Ginsberg, a Miłosz, a Brodsky, or any other poet I loved."

I have my own problems with Stanford, given what I know of the English Department and its abysmal treatment of Gilbert Sorrentino and Marjorie Perloff, and when Jerzy began to praise the Hoover Institute, I reminded him that it had once been the home of Condoleza Rice. But I comprehended Jerzy's outrage and his dismissals of "correct" thinking. His perspective was simply more profound than Ferlinghetti's, an outsider's interpretation of reality. All of which reminded me that when it comes to international issues, an ignorance in world affairs is shared by both the right and the left. In order to understand another culture, one had to begin with humility, accepting one's stupidity along with any supposed insights.

Perhaps that's why, despite our vast aesthetic differences, Jerzy and I got on so well. I don't know how he felt, but I found in him a new friend.

Seoul, South Korea, October 7, 2010

Monday, February 21, 2011

Six Degrees of Insanity (on Goodman's, Sellars' and Adams' Nixon in China)


Alice Goodman (libretto), Peter Sellars (director), John Adams (composer) Nixon in China / The Metropolitan Opera, New York / the production I saw was a live in HD screening at the Rave Theater, Westchester, California

Although most of the critics who I read (Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, and Anne Midgette of The Washington Post) agreed that the Met's new production of Nixon in China was excellent and long overdue, there was a sense among the three that the plot of the work was static and that one character, in particular, Henry Kissinger (sung by Richard Paul Fink), was a figure of parody whereas the others were treated more seriously. In a piece by Max Frankel, published in The New York Times a couple of days before the live HD airing, the former editor of the Times—who was with Nixon in China and won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the trip—squarely asked the question which the other reviewers only intimated:

...Why bother, as in Nixon, to lure us to a fictional enterprise with
contemporary characters and scenes from an active memory bank?
Why use actualities, or the manufactured actualities of our television
screens and newspapers, to fuel the drama?

The answer, he feels, is "obvious but also treacherous," that the use of actual characters helps to "overcome the musty odor that inhabits many opera houses," drawing new audiences into the theater. But, Frankel continues, it brings other dangers with it:

The danger is that despite the verisimilitudes of text, setting and
costume, a viewer's grasp of events may not match the fabric
being woven onstage. What the creators intend to be profundity
may strike the knowing as parody.

Most of the reviewers agreed that the composer, writer, and director did give their figures a range of emotions, both serious and comic, and between acts, Winston Lord (of National Security) assured us backstage that much of the talk between Nixon and Chairman Mao in the First Act was close to what actually was said in their meeting; but all also felt that the opera did move to a kind of parody in the Second Act performance of The Red Detachment of Women, in which Fink, the singer-actor who played Kissinger, also plays a lecherous, Simon Legree-like landowner who has stolen away a young maiden. Fink sings:

She was so hot
I was hard-put
To be polite.
When the first cut
—Come on you slut!—
Scored her brown skin
I started in,
Man upon hen!

Some characterized this scene as surreal and the last act as psychological, as if they were somehow different in tone from the more historicized events in the First Act.

If nothing else, there was a sense that Nixon in China, without a narrative arc, was a bit of a rocky ride. Certainly, at times, while always enjoying the shimmering glory of the music, I too felt that way while watching it. Yet now that I've pondered it for while, I believe I was mistaken, that, in fact, the opera is highly structured and fairly coherent in its tone and presentation of characters.

First of all, John Adams and Peter Sellars are never going to present something that works as a Verdi opera might. Although all may work with a complex weaving of historical events, Verdi's sense of drama is highly embedded in narrative, while Adams and team, postmodern in their approach, eschew what we might call "story."

Nixon in China has "events," but there are presented in a series of tableaux, not unlike some medieval musical productions. Each character gets the chance to reveal his or her selves. But what Alice Goodman, Adams and Sellars are interested in is not so much the outer faces they present to the world, but what these figures are thinking and imagining within. And I think they would have to admit that every figure on their stage is, in one way or another, a bit unhinged; these are, after all—with the exception perhaps of Pat Nixon—people desperate for power. And all are on the edge of insanity.

Even before we meet any of the major characters, the people of China speak in a strange manner that we comprehend is not quite rational thought, as they sing from the text of "The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention":

Prompt delivery directly to authorities of all items
confiscated from landlords.
Do not damage crops.
Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.
Pay for everything you damage.

As they chant, "The people are the heroes now," even if these "heroes" are highly manipulated and controlled.

Out of the sky drops the Nixons' Spirit of 76, and no sooner does the President descend the airstair, shaking the hand of Premier Chou En-lai, than he begins inwardly calculating the great results of this journey as the filming catches him just in time for the evening news broadcasts in the USA, he hilariously singing out his fascination with his own acts: "News! News! News!

News has a kind of mystery;
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the whole world was listening

James Maddalena, who has now sung this role in hundreds of performances, is an amazing actor, who brings off those jowl-shaking absurdities quite brilliantly.

Nixon's and Kissinger's meeting with Premier Chou (Russell Braun) and Chairman Mao (Robert Brubaker) in the next scene is perhaps the most absurd of the entire opera, as the two powerful leaders speak in a series of alternating gnomic jokes, apothegms, and, in Nixon's case, simple American verbal blunders. As Mao becomes more and more incomprehensible ("Founders come first / Then profiteers") in sayings parroted by a wonderful trio of assistants, Nixon attempts his linguistic twists spun from what he believes the Chairman might be saying. It all reminds me, a bit, of the other Peter Seller's performance as the totally innocent and ignorant Chance in the film Being There, where he spouts meaningless sentences interpreted by others to be full of profound significance. Mao and Nixon, one a bit senile, the other a humorless and often depressed being , hit it off beautifully in their mindless chatter, while the more rational Kissinger proclaims to be unable to understand anything, and the Premier sits silently in sufferance.

What that meeting accomplished, an issue clearly of importance in this opera, is questionable. But surely we can feel, and, in Adams' delicious scoring, we can hear the growing friendliness of all figures as they swill down Mai-tai after Mai-tai with toast upon toast. Again, non-drinker Kissinger misses out on all the glorious insanity of the evening.

In Act II we get a chance to see Pat Nixon at the edge. She begins the morning, in fact, downing a couple of needed pills. Like Premier Chou she is in sufferance, and, although excited by the whole trip, she is also exhausted and, we feel, not at all comfortable. The most American of this opera's figures, she flaunts a bright red coat. Flawlessly played by Janis Kelly, Pat comes off as somewhat frail and slightly terrified being as she is rushed through a glass factory (where the workers award her a green elephant) and classrooms in which the students have clearly been told what to say and how to behave, before stopping by the Gate of Longevity and Goodwill, where she sings her touching and slightly pathetic paean to the world she loves:

This is prophetic! I foresee
A time will come when luxury
Dissolves into the atmosphere
Like a perfume, and everywhere
The simple virtues root and branch
And leaf and flower. And on that bench
There we’ll relax and taste the fruit
Of all our actions. Why regret
Life which is so much like a dream?

Yet the homespun images she spins out of her sense of momentary joy—lit-up farm porches, families sitting around the dinner table, church steeples, etc.—are right out of Norman Rockwell paintings and is just as absurd of a vision as are her husband's darker mumblings.

That evening's presentation of The Red Detachment of Women ballet, written by Chiang Ch'ing, Mao's wife—as she so shrilly reminds us later—is experienced by the now overwhelmed Nixons less as an objective performance—in reality the evening ended with enthusiastic praise by the President and First Lady—as from a psychological, inner viewpoint. It is clear that Nixon, as he suggests several times in the opera, admired Kissinger's mind, but he also mocked his ways and apparently disliked the man personally. Accordingly the Nixons both conjure up the evil landowner in their tired travelers' minds, to be, or, least, to look like Kissinger.* Like many an innocent theater-goer, the Nixons become so involved in the story of a poor girl who is saved and then destroyed by refusing to obey Communist doctrine that they confuse drama with reality, breaking into the action of the ballet itself to save and protect the young dancer.

Mark Morris, using some aspects of the original choreography, nicely stages his orderly squadrons of young military dancers against the chaos of events. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the opera, and I am still not sure whether or not it truly succeeds, but it is crucial to our witnessing the truly mad person behind Chiang Ch'ing (Kathleen Kim)—who in real life may have been responsible for hundreds of deaths and had, herself, erratic nerves and severe hypochondiasis—as she proclaims in the noted aria, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung," and angrily declares that all be determined by "the book." After Mao's death, we should recall, Chiang Ch'ing committed suicide.

After witnessing these six individuals'—Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, Pat Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Chiang Ch'ing—mental dramas, we can only breathlessly watch as they slip into sleep. Kissinger shacks up with one of Mao's translators before disappearing into the bathroom. The Nixons share their disappointments, the President for being misinterpreted by the newspapers, Pat silently suffering, with tearful eyes, from her husband's inattention and having herself to attend yet again to what may be his ritual recounting of an attack he endured in World War II. Mao also finds relief in the hands of one of his translators before threatening his wife for having made political mistakes, until he falls with her into a lustful embrace upon their bed. Chou En-lai, clearly already in pain from the bladder cancer which would kill him 4 years later, awakens early to return to his never-ending work, drawing a close to all the madness with the most profound question of the opera: "Was there any point to any of it?"

The "it" may refer, obviously, to the Nixons' visit, but it also suggests another possibility of meaning: "Was there any point to all their madness, to their desperate struggles to hold onto any power they might have over others?" All ended their lives in disgrace and shame, except for Pat; but even she almost disappeared from the public eye after the death of her husband, suffering a serious stroke the same year that Chou En-lai died.

In some respects, I now wonder, despite its occasional comic elements and always lush sonority of sound, if this isn't one of the darkest of operas. But then, aren't the young and the old—represented by the US and China—usually at the heart of the tragic, Romeo and Lear?

Los Angeles, February 19, 2011

Coincidentally, in my 1990 "opera for spoken voices," The Walls Come True (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995), I included Dr. Kissinger in my "Twelve Tyrants Between Acts: Mundane Moments and Insane Histories," based on the paranoia and ridiculous accusations he expressed in his Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little Brown, 1982) when, in 1973, he was in Hanoi attempting to negotiate the Paris Accords.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Invention Serves Remembrance (on the restoration of Agee's original text of A Death in the Family)

James Agee

Editor Michael Lafaro


James Agee A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text, edited by Michael A. Lofaro (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2007)

In a year (2008) in which I had determined, after writing about my father's death in 2002, to read James Agee's A Death in the Family, it seemed that I was fated to read the newly released "restored" edition of that book. I admit that I was not completely enthused by the idea, particularly after having read, in March, the review of the "restoration" in the Los Angeles Times Book Review which argued that David McDowell's editing of the original publication of the Agee work in 1957 was "superior" to the Lofaro text:

Lofaro conjectures that McDowell “changed the novel to suit the popular tastes of the 1950s and increase the book’s marketability”; he does not consider that McDowell might have made his decisions for a simpler reason: to create the best possible book. The new chapters, while interesting, don’t add much to our understanding of Jay or Mary or young Rufus. In fact, everything that needs to be established – the tenderness and conflict within the marriage, Jay’s drinking and tendency to drive too fast, Rufus’ deep sensitivity and his near-worshipful relationship with his father – is handled perfectly, and more economically, in the original version.
The critic goes on to argue that Lofaro's "most egregious" decision was to remove the "Knoxville: Summer 1915" section, replacing it with a nightmare sequence, which, "with its graphic violence and religious symbolism, is heavy-handed and not nearly as effective."
In short, he concludes, "Lofaro has made a mess of it."

My own intuition, moreover, was that what Lofaro argued was Agee's intention of a straight-forward, chronologically-ordered narrative seemed far less interesting than the flashbacks and other modernist narrative devices introduced by McDowell. The sheer size and heft of the "restored" edition, along with these reservations, led me to put off reading the Lofaro edition until late in the year.

Fortunately, the time in early December in which I came to the fiction also allowed me to slow down the pace of the reading and to more carefully consider Lofaro's voluminous series of notes and annotations—nearly as long as the work itself.

I have now come to feel that the restored version, contrary to the reviewer's insistence, is far superior: clearer, more emotionally engaging, and, most importantly, in concert with the author's desires.

Agee, it is apparent, never intended his beautiful set piece, "Knoxville: Summer, 1915," first published in Partisan Review in 1938, to be included in A Death in the Family. And the situation he describes in that prose poem, although it may remind one of the poetic tone and certain incidents in the fiction, makes it seem as if the young boy's uncle and aunt, "living at home," were residing within his own house. Emma, his sister, appears nowhere in that short piece. And the poem ends with a dilemma of self-identity that is not at all an issue in A Death in the Family.
Lofaro admits that there is no way of definitively knowing that Agee intended to begin his work with the horrifying dream sequence about a John the Baptist-like being, killed by the mobs of the city; but it is also clear that there is no other place for it in the work, despite it being contained in the original manuscripts.

The dream episode seems quite obviously that of an older man, still haunted by the death of his father; and Agee's own analysis at the end of that dream that the corpse was the father and his recognition that "He [the narrator]

should go back into those years. As far as he could remember; and
everything he could remember; nothing he had learned or done since;
nothing except (so well as he could remember) what his father had been
as far as he had known him, and what he had been as he had known
himself, and what he had seen with his own eyes, and supposed with
his own mind....

all seem to point to the very beginning of the imaginative voyage upon which the rest of the work will take the reader. As Agee wrote in 1948 to his dead father:

Let me explain what I am trying to do here [in this work].
I have lived, now, a year longer than you were given to live. I feel
very heavy in the sense of life and death, and very heavy in my
sense of uncertainty and of failure in my life so far.... My way of
trying to handle these things is to try to recall and understand
my life, as well as I can, and to try to write it down as clearly and
as well as I can.

As Agee wrote his mother:

I am trying to write a short book, a novel, beginning with the first things
I can remember, and ending with my father's burial. The whole closing
section is to be as clear an account as I can make of everything I can
remember, from the morning I woke up and learned that he had died
the night before, through to the end of the afternoon of the funeral.

He notes elsewhere that he is trying to write a narrative that is as chronologically correct and clear as he can make it. "In most novels, properly enough, remembrance serves invention. In this volume," Agee proclaims, "invention has served remembrance."

More importantly, Lofaro shows us that Agee saw this work less as "a novel"—even though he himself, as I have noted above, refers to the work as "a novel"—than as an autobiography, a work, had he lived longer, that might have been embedded within other writings about his ancestors, his mother and father's relationship, and his own later education and writing experiences.

The Lofaro edition adds ten chapters and restores versions of three other chapters, as well as bringing parts of the text together which were previously divided. The newly-found chapters that Lofaro includes slow down the work and draw the reader into the detail of Agee's world. Indeed, it is this series of details wherein this work has its deepest meaning. As I have written elsewhere, A Death in the Family virtually has no plot. We know from the outset what the major event of the work entails: the father's death. And anyone who has experienced the death of a family member can imagine the effects on a family. What is remarkable about his writing is how Agee makes his family members (Lofaro restores the actual family names, Agee and Tyler, to his text) so immediate and real: the way they cook, shop, worry for and about each other, and share and disagree with each other regarding viewpoints on various issues such as sexuality and religion. The familial details of life are at the heart of Agee's work, and Lofaro's version not only enhances these, but allows the reader to better understand the relationship of husband and wife, father and son, mother and son, and brother and sister.

Had the original editor, McDowell, more transparently admitted his radical editorial changes, I think no one might blame him for his decisions; I agree with Lofaro's analysis that "he changed the novel to suit the popular tastes of the 1950s and increase the book's marketability." The decision to produce a shorter work, the various flashbacks in time and space are quite understandable in a decade in which readers were assimilating Faulkner's great experiments and reading new works by Nabokov, Salinger, Bellow and others. Within this context, Agee's work, as he intended it, does seem somewhat "old-fashioned."

But McDowell felt it necessary to disavow any major changes, insisting in his "A Note on This Book":

There has been no re-writing, and nothing has been eliminated except
for a few cases of first-draft material which he later re-worked at
greater length, and one section of seven-odd pages which the editors
were unable satisfactorily to fit into the body of the novel [apparently
the prologue of Lofaro's edition].

If nothing else, however, Lofaro definitively shows just how extensive McDowell's changes were, revealing in many respects how different this book is from the original publication and, just as importantly I would argue, how different is a novel from an autobiography.

Admittedly, there are a few problems with this "restoration." Agee did not title any of his sections or chapters; Lofaro has chosen to title sections, some with words from the text that seem, within the context of Agee's poetical writing, rather awkward, such as "This little boy you live in," "Perceptions c. 1911-1912" and "Enter the Ford: Travel, 1913-1916." Lofaro also occasionally explains some of Agee's dialect word choices, placing them in brackets within the text, while I feel this might have been better handled through a discrete asterisk with a same-page note. But these are minor quibbles in what has clearly been a long labor of love.

Rather than "making a mess of it," I would argue, Lofaro has utterly clarified Agee's intentions and revealed an astounding contribution to American autobiographical writing.

Los Angeles, December 28, 2008
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XIV (Spring 2009).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Peter Pan (on Jane Leavy's The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood)


Jane Leavy The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

My friends and even those who know me only slightly would all be surprised, I think, to know that I read Jane Leavy’s fascinating biography of Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy. I am quite obviously disinterested in most sports, and when I do watch such events, it is usually the three s’s, swimming, skating, and skiing. The only group sport I can endure is another sport that begins with an “s”, soccer! In fact, much to the amusement and, perhaps the embarrassment of my three nephews, I do not even know the names of most American football, basketball, or baseball teams. I often visit sports bars to write, since I can completely tune out the several televisions broadcasting events, one of those bars being Mickey Mantle's Restaurant and Sports Bar on Central Park South in New York City, where I sat reading and writing before a meeting with author Richard Kalich one recent afternoon.

It is rather odd, therefore—or completely predictable—that I grew up in a family completely immersed in just to what I am oblivious of. My father began his career as a womens’ basketball coach, and early on coached football as well. My brother David, his second son, went on to become the football and golf coach for the school district for which my father served as superintendent and where I grew up. His three sons were all players of football and basketball there, and my youngest nephew has gone on to study sport’s therapy, after finishing a B.A. in business.

I was steeped in sports, made to participate in Little League baseball each summer—where I bleakly cowered in right field, terrified a ball might come my way. I was also strongly encouraged to, and obediently did play on the second string football team. I dreaded each practice session. During the games I sat on the bench, playing, to my recollection, only in one game.

By my Junior year of high school, I was freed from that indenturement, as I was taken on as the “mascot,” which meant I had to attend all sports events—basketball, baseball, football, wrestling, even field and track—cleaning up the locker room and, mostly, ogling the beautiful boy’s bodies. Herewith I reveal a long kept secret: at the end of the year, I, the most disinterested of sports enthusiasts in the city, received a letter sweater! The irony of it haunts me still today, and I saved that sweater for years after it ceased to fit my expanding body until my companion Howard insisted we remove it from our closet.

Growing up in the 1950s, accordingly, there was no way that I could not have heard of Mickey Mantle, and for one glorious summer, even I was in sync with my peers, collecting baseball cards, with the especial hope to open a pack of gum—a substance I did not enjoy and seldom chewed—to find a Mickey Mantle card—or, at least, to be able to trade one. My failure to acquire was thoroughly explained in Leavy's book. I believe my brother succeeded where I did not, but, then, he was the greatest sports lover I knew, and his sons continue in that tradition, announcing in Facebook message after message: “Go Hawks!”, “Go Pirates!”, “Go”—whatever their favorite team is of the week.

It must of have been as early as the summer of 1955 or 1956, the glorious years of the Mick’s pinnacle that I dropped the baseball cards for the Burns-Mantle Theater books, listing the names of plays, authors, dates, directors, and choreographers with the same intensity sports lovers did homeruns, runs batted in, and other such trivia. A year later I had added an addiction to film through seeing my second Hitchcock movie. I had no more time for sports, despite my father’s insistence that I persevere in playing them.

For all that, I found Jane Leavy’s personally sympathetic and yet substantially critical perspective of Mantle—no relationship to Burns—and his personal life a truly joyful read, for which I was happy to put away old grievances to regain a vision of what those golden days meant to the culture as a whole.

And as Leavy makes clear, they were days of cultural innocence. It was, as she puts it, the "cusp of a radical change":

Babe Ruth was three years dead; DiMaggio was taking his curtain call. His successor, Mickey Mantle, the first telegenic star of the new broadcast age, was installed in right field. Mantle's charismatic foil, Willie Mays, was playing center field for baseball's first all-black outfield.

Born the same year to fathers who rolled baseballs across the floor to baby boys who could not yet walk, they were in their major league infancy. What the 65,000 paying customers at Yankee Stadium saw that afternoon were two works in progress whose unlimited potential would fuel unending debate. They would improve each other and everyone who played with them and against them.

Added to Mantle's all-American grinning face, topped by blond locks, a personality that generally was friendly to his fans, and you had a hero in the making. And for many, as Leavy recounts, Mantle was like no other. No matter who you might think is the best all-time ballplayer, Mantle has always to be in the running, and Leavy, employing encyclopedic data, convinces that it has to be Mantle!

First of all there was his amazing ability not just to hit the ball out the park, but way out of the park, as if the ball had been launched into space rather than merely "hit" by some bat. Early in the book the author describes, in intense detail, the happenings of "One Big Day," April 17, 1953, when Mantle hit the ball out of Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium, nicking the Bohemian Beer sign at the stadium's top:

The ball left his bat traveling at an estimated speed of 110 miles per hour. Clark Griffith, the namesake and grandson of the Senators' owner, was sitting in the family box behind the third base dugout, having cut class at Sidwell Friends School for an afternoon of baseball. "It went up and got caught in the jet stream," he said, "It took on a life of its own."

The thwack of contact resounded through the empty stands. The sound would stay in the memory of Roy Clark, the musical son of the Washington square dance bandleader, sitting with his father along the first base line. "It just echoed in that ballpark," Clark Said. "Even before it was halfway to its destination, you knew that it was gone. Looked like it was in the air for five minutes."

The Yankee's director of public relations, Arthur E. Patterson, immediately declared "That one's got to be measured," dashing from the stadium to discover the ball had been found by a young Black boy, Donald Dunaway. Leavy clearly reveals that much of the rest of the story of how far the ball had traveled was fiction. Yet, for years it stood in baseball history as Patterson had recounted it.

For months Leavy attempted, even with the help of a detective, to track down Dunaway, unable to find him in any source in Washington, D.C. until she went back to the neighborhood, querying people house by house. Miraculously, she found him, and sets the record straight: instead of falling to the backyard of 434 Oakdale Place, as Patterson reported Dunaway to have told him where he found it, Dunaway pointed to a window of a house twenty-five feet closer to the stadium.

Alan Nathan, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana reasonably estimates that the ball left the bat traveling at 113 miles per hour at an angle of 30 to 31 degrees. Given a wind of 20 miles per hour, less than the highest gusts, it fell from the roof of a nearby house about 512 to 540 feet from home plate, about where Dunaway reported to have found the ball.

But, of course, that was not the only Mantle home-run hit. Mickey Charles Mantle put 6,392 balls into play, according to Leavy, 536 of them home runs!

Secondly, there was his ability to hustle, even though for most of his baseball life Mantle was in almost unendurable pain. He could run, and raced round the bases throughout most of his career playable career. Leavy charts his numerous injuries which left him, for months and entire seasons, on the bench or bed.

Thirdly there was the simple likability of the man. His smile seemed to say it all. "It was a smile, Leavy quotes Tim McCarver, "quite unlike any other, almost a measure of man." In the club house he was looked up to by one and all, but while DiMaggio presumed he was God, Mantle was shy and affable about it. He was nearly everyone's best friend.

What Leavy also shows us, however, was Mantle's darker sides as well, particularly his dissociation with his own family, returning home only on occasions, while he lived most of his life in the locker room or boozing it up in bars, eateries and hotels with teammates like Whitey Ford and, almost always, women. Social diseases were a natural consequence.

Mantle was obsessed by death, and he presumed that he would never have a long life. And, apparently, he was often as broad-humored and coarsely-spoken as a small-town conventioneer. Hostile to the press, at times in his career he could equally tune out his fans. Generous to a fault, Mantle could also be so caught up in himself that he seemed to have no room for others.

The author of The Last Boy explains much of these "good boy/bad boy" extremes as having roots in his hardscrabble Oklahoma upbringing and through sexual abuse as a child by both women and men in his family.

But perhaps the best explanation is one based on a phenomenon that I have written about numerous times in the pages of these cultural memoirs: like so many young and middle-aged men I encounter in the sports bars, Mantle was never truly able to grow up—"He never grew up, and it ruined him," Leavy quotes Mantle's teammate Jerry Coleman.

Leavy's own enjoyable and painful encounter with the Mick at a time where he was forced to leave baseball for taking on the promotion of an Atlantic City casino, exemplifies nearly everything good and bad about the man, a story she tells in pieces throughout the book so that its revelations become even more powerful as we read. As she stood in the cold of a golf field waiting to interview him, Mantle screams out for someone to give her a coat, rewarding it to her almost as a gallant. Yet later he tries to grope her thigh before collapsing drunkenly into sleep, his head falling upon her lap. The next morning a question she asks about his son's cancer brings tears to Mantle's eyes.

By book's end we have little choice but to love while being being equally disgusted by this great baseball hero. I don't know if Mantle was "The Last Boy"—although we all know baseball changed again after his generation's passing, I fear many Americans' desires to return to childhood may never disappear—but he was a significantly lost boy in a long string of American Peter Pan's, and the terrible "hook" finally caught him. As an alcoholic whose body had been eaten up by both his vocation and personal behavior, Mantle's death serves as a awful testament to the heroic failure of men unable to face their adult lives. And yet, he was genius behind the bat, and how he could fly around those bases!

Los Angeles, February 13/16, 2011