Cardboard Books: The CelebrantJuly 11, 2008
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.