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Cardboard Books: The Celebrant

July 11, 2008
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Day in and day out, I follow sports. I’m sure even on the rare days when I’ve been unable to fasten myself to some form of mass media outlet—snowed in and batteryless at the unabomber cabin I lived in for a year, say, or backpacking on the Appalachian Trail—I’ve at least thought about sports. About statistics. About lists. About the actions of uniformed strangers. This makes me a fanatic, to use the extended version of the term most often applied to individuals exhibiting my behavior. Another term often used is spectator. So I’m either mentally unhinged or passive or both. That sounds about right. But is that all there is to it?

Eric Rolfe Greenberg offers with the title of his 1983 novel, The Celebrant, a third term to describe those of us whose lives are colored and even defined by our devotion to sports. The book, one of the best baseball novels ever written, suggests we celebrants may have much more at stake in this lifelong passion than we are willing to admit.

The novel, set in the early twentieth century, centers on the bond between an immigrant jeweler, Jackie Kapp, and the first and most regal of all the baseball Kings of New York, Christy Mathewson. This connection begins when Jackie, just after giving up on his own promising baseball career to join the family jewel business, watches a young Mathewson no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals. The performance inspires the desire, the need, to celebrate, and Jackie designs a commemorative ring for Mathewson, a gift to repay the gift Mathewson gave him.

As Jackie grows older, the no-hitter comes to loom in his heart and mind as the one pure moment of his and Mathweson’s lives, and his attempts to guard that idea of purity against defilement and corruption serve not only to create a gripping central conflict for the novel but also to transform the arc of Mathewson’s career, which was as rife with disappointment and stunning defeat as it was with legendary triumph, into the sorrowful, exalting realm of classic tragedy. This tragedy gains a terrible, inevitable momentum as the story progresses through a series of thrilling, meticulously detailed moments in baseball history. The drama inside and outside the ballpark is imbedded with insightful commentary on such things as the immigrant experience in America, the individuality-stripping mechanization of society, the commercialization and commodification of athletics and of heroes, the rise of gambling in baseball, and, perhaps most of all, the question of what it means to be a fan.

The far-ranging thematic scope of Greenberg’s novel might suggest a sacrifice of the kind of pungent details that allow a novel to move beyond the brain to the marrow, but in fact the great pleasure of the book is its ability to allow the reader to experience how it must have felt to be a baseball fan a century ago. The moment my admiration for the book turned to love was with the revelation of a seemingly unimportant detail involving the notoriously corrupt Hal Chase, who becomes friendly with Jackie’s brother Eli, a gambler. The entry into the story of perhaps the most notorious villain in baseball history produces a sense of foreboding, but Greenberg simultaneously cuts against and heightens this foreboding by showing Jackie’s toddler son’s reaction to Chase, who has accompanied the Kapps to a Giants game. The boy (named Matthias, a further tribute of the celebrant to the celebrated), “immediately took to the Yankee, whose huge hands held him gently.” Later in the game, Matthias falls asleep in Chase’s arms. “I offered to take him,” Jackie recalls, “but Chase insisted he was no bother.”

This detail embodies not only the keen eye Greenberg brings to the story of Jackie Kapp and Christy Mathewson, but also Greenberg’s ability to lace his details with seismic symbolism. The toddler, purity’s namesake, sleeps in the corrupter’s arms. The episode with Chase ends with Matthias back in Jackie’s arms, awake and crying. The novel ends in a similar fashion, like all tragedies.

I don’t know why I come back to sports again and again, day after day, but I suspect that on some level it’s to try to keep sleeping. I guess we’ve all known a kind of purity through sports, and so through celebration—more loving than fanaticism, more engaged and active and risky than spectating—we carry that purity gently, as if it might stay sheltered safely in a dream.

17 comments

  1. 1.  The other day, never having heard of this book before, I saw it on the $2 rack outside of a used bookstore. There were pinstripes and a little baseball on the spine, so I grabbed it. There was a cover blurb from WP Kinsella, a Jewish protagonist and the author’s name was Eric. I bought it on a whim, figured it was just some forgotten literary attempt at a baseball novel that never caught on. Hell, it was published by the University of Nebraska Press.

    It’s a little eerie that you happen to write about it today. So now I don’t have a choice -I’ll be starting The Celebrant tonight.


  2. 2.  1 : I guess the book didn’t reach the audience it deserved when it first came out. I get the feeling that it has a place of high esteem in the world of baseball literature, but I’d actually never heard of it until it was named by a three of the people surveyed by Alex Belth for his 10 Essential Baseball Books feature:

    http://bronxbanter.baseballtoaster.com/archives/971506.html


  3. 3.  Absolutely one of the finest baseball novels extant. It’s great on all three relevant levels, too–excellent as literature, excellent in its treatment of the game, and masterful in the way those elements are intertwined.

    Most such fiction, even when well written, is “about” baseball, which is to say that it’s only there to say something about the game. I can’t think offhand of good examples, but maybe Frank DeFord’s novels would fit here. There are also a handful of quality books that happen to include baseball as an interesting hook on which to hang a story. I’m thinking now of stuff like The Brothers K or even Coover’s J. Henry Waugh.

    In The Celebrant, though, the topic is perfectly integrated. It’s about the the game as it has to do with life, and there aren’t but a handful of other novels like that–maybe The Natural, maybe The Southpaw and little else.

    I’m sure I didn’t explain that very well, and I threw out a number of assertions that need to be unpacked, as my lit professors used to say, but hopefully it’ll make some sense to somebody.


  4. 4.  2 : Also, commenter Wabi-Sabi gave a heads-up about the book on this site, in the comments to an interview with Cait Murphy:

    http://cardboardgods.baseballtoaster.com/archives/970452.html

    3 : I agree with that “three-level” distinction for The Celebrant. I think Mark Harris’s first two of four baseball novels, The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly, qualify for that distinction too (the third, Ticket for a Seamstich, is a good read but a little slight, and the fourth, It Looked Like Forever, is a good book but frustratingly light on actual baseball action).


  5. 5.  2 , Actually as soon as I wrote that down I remembered that Bronx Banter book poll and went over there. Lo and behold, The Celebrant is mentioned in the first paragraph of the post. Obviously my reading comprehension skills have been honed quite finely by standardized testing.


  6. 6.  Josh, though it is nothing like The Celebrant, a baseball novel I highly recommend to you is Diminished Capacity by Sherwood Kiraly. Any novel that uses a baseball card to advance the action has much going for it. And thanks for the magnificent Matty card that accompanies your post.

    Stan from Tacoma


  7. 7.  6 : I’ll have to check that book out. Thanks for the recommendation.

    That beautiful Matty card (of course one of the rare images on this site that didn’t come from my personal shoebox stash) is a Google-found image of his 1909 card, from the T206 series famous primarily for including the holy grail of baseball cards, the Honus Wagner, but also renowned for its overall beauty. (As long as we’re recommending books, The Card (2007), by Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson, is an excellent journalistic history of the most valuable version of the Honus Wagner T206.)

    Though Mathewson was at least as renowned as Wagner at that time, his T206 is apparently much less valuable than Wagner’s. Here’s a link to a 2005 online auction in which a Mathewson T206 that looks to my inexpert eyes to be in decent shape sold for $322:

    http://www.americanmemorabilia.com/Auction_Item.asp?Auction_ID=22584


  8. 8.  Oh, gee, thanks. Another book to read. (Long, exaggerated sigh.)

    Seriously, this sounds like a winner.

    Reminds me a little of Troy Soos’ series of baseball mysteries, if only because of the time period. Soos writes of Mickey Rawlings, a mythical backup infielder playing during the deadball era who seems to get involved in murderous doings. The titles are obvious: “Murder at Fenway Park”, “Murder at Wrigley Field”, “The Cincinnati Red Stalkings”, etc. They are tremendously good reads, with healthy doses of baseball action and plenty of period details.

    Josh, I do the same thing in the dentist’s office, the only time when I can’t read a book-make lists of “Best Red Sox Second Basemen”, or “Best Players I’ve Ever Seen Play In Person”.

    Noted Sox fan Robert B. Parker has his detective, Spenser, do this in one of his novels when he is briefly detained in jail. I think that’s where I got the idea.


  9. 9.  Here’s the weirdest thing…the author was a Hollywood publicist for years and this is the only book he ever wrote. How random is that? Especially since the book is so compelling. I just read it earlier this spring and although I’m not much for historical novels, I was immediately drawn in by this one and enjoyed it thoroughly.


  10. 10.  8 : I have a copy of Murder at Wrigley Field around somewhere. Looks interesting.

    9 : I also was very surprised that this was Greenberg’s only novel. The high level of craftsmanship suggests someone who has made fiction-writing his life’s work. I actually kind of want to take a swing at him, partly out of jealousy and partly out of anger that he only wrote the one book.


  11. 11.  Some more Celebrant-inspired thoughts…

    I wonder if the average baseball fan is aware of Mathewson’s towering presence in baseball in the early 20th Century. He was the original King of New York.

    Undisputed Kings of New York:

    Mathewson
    Ruth
    Dimaggio
    Mantle
    Seaver
    Reggie
    Jeter

    There have been other pretty gigantic figures, but in my mind these are the undisputed champeens.


  12. 12.  11 Joe Namath
    Frank Gifford
    Mark Messier
    I know some would make a compelling case for Rod Gilbert, too.


  13. 13.  12 : Good list. No disrespect meant to those deserving dudes; I was just thinking of baseball guys.

    It’s funny, there may be no bigger hoops mecca than New York, but it’s tough to come up with undisputed Kings of basketball there. The early ’70s Knicks were too balanced a team to have one guy stand alone at the top. Ewing was certainly the king of the Knicks in the ’90s, but people always seemed to want just a little more than what he was giving. I guess the most clear-cut case of a basketball King of New York was King (Bernard) of New York (Brooklyn, that is).


  14. 14.  McGraw was probably king of New York for a while between Matty and Ruth.

    Mathewson won 373 games, but his last big year was his age 33 season, and his ERA was worse than the league ERA that year.


  15. 15.  14 : That is true. In fact, The Celebrant makes the case for him as being as big as (if not as worshiped as) Mathewson when they were together.


  16. 16.  13 Yeah, after the fact I realized you had just stuck with baseball guys, but it got me to thinking anyway…

    And yeah, good point about the Knicks.


  17. I just borrowed this book from the library and it is very good so far. Between the Manhattan and Brooklyn library systems there was only one copy. Josh you have had quite an influence on me. I am finishing “On the Road” which I also got inspired to read from these pages.

    And congratulations!!!

    Hadn’t seen this link here:



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