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Ron Fimrite
October 15, 1990
Mark Harris's novels sparkle with hard-edged realism
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October 15, 1990

Fiction In A Diamond Setting

Mark Harris's novels sparkle with hard-edged realism

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And what of Wiggen? Is the cocky southpaw an alter ego of the professor, as Bjarkman suggests? Well, for starters both of them are authors. In You Know Me Al the reader merely gets hold of Jack Keefe's correspondence. In Harris's books, Wiggen is quite self-consciously the author, the fictional forerunner, one fears, of a distressingly long roster of real-life tell-all ballplayer-authors. Harris gives himself byline credit on the title page of The Southpaw only for "punctuation freely inserted and spelling greatly improved"; in Bang the Drum Slowly, for restraining "certain of his [Wiggen's] enthusiasms"; and in A Ticket for a Seamstitch, for polishing "for the printer."

As unlettered as he is, Wiggen seeks to write as he thinks an author should, eschewing contractions and ludicrously bisecting words—"no body," "broad casting"—in the interest of proper syntax. In The Southpaw he even bemoans the travails of authorship: "I begun this book last October, and it is now January, and I doubt that I am halfway through. I will give 1 word of advice to any sap with the itch to write a book—do not begin it in the first place."

For all of his macho posturing, Wiggen is, as is his creator, a pacifist and civil-rights activist, qualities that pretty much set him apart from the ballplayers of his time—the early 1950s to the early '70s. Wiggen shares another characteristic with his creator: He is a rebel, at odds much of the time with authority figures. Still, for all of his troubles—the fickleness of fame, the death of a teammate, the disintegration of a career—Wiggen has led a comparatively placid existence compared with that of Harris.

Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, is only a half hour by train from Manhattan. Harris's happiest moments there were spent on the diamond at Memorial Field, catching his more athletically gifted friend Norman Apell, whose death in World War II, wrote Harris in his autobiography, "would forever entwine itself with my life, haunting my dreams, shaping my writing."

Harris, who was born Mark Harris Finkelstein on Nov. 19, 1922, dropped his surname after graduation from Mount Vernon High in 1940. "I was 18 years old," he says. "It was a difficult time for kids with Jewish names to get good jobs. I changed the name strictly to make myself more employable."

His father, Carlyle, did not protest. "My father was a pragmatist," says Harris, "who was in favor of anything that would help me get a job." The son of Russian-Polish immigrants, Carlyle was a product of New York City's tough Lower East Side at the turn of the century. He freed himself from the neighborhood through education. He became a modestly successful real estate lawyer in New York City with a suburban apartment, a wife and three children. Yet he was opposed to his older son Mark's going to college. "It was the end of the Depression," says Harris, "and my father would just tell me, 'You don't need a college education.' His main interest was money."

So after high school, Harris, the budding intellectual, spent two years working for the Press Alliance in New York, a newspaper-syndication company. "My job was mostly being a messenger and operating a mimeograph machine," he says. In January 1943 he was drafted into the Army. The death overseas of Apell had convinced him of the futility of war, and he was further outraged by racial segregation within the armed forces.

Approaching what may have been a nervous breakdown, he deserted his company at Camp Wheeler in Georgia, leaving behind a note to his company commander complaining of "every day expressions of racism in an army presumably dedicated to a war against Nazism." He was arrested a few days later, hospitalized for supposed "psychoneurosis" and given an honorable discharge. He had served 15 months.

After his release from the Army, Harris went to work as a reporter for The Daily Item, a newspaper in Port Chester, N.Y., the town that would serve as the model for Wiggen's hometown of Perkinsville. A year later, he got a job at the liberal-intellectual paper P.M., in New York City, but he lasted only four months, recognizing that his days there as a glorified copy boy were numbered when he forgot to transmit a review written by the esteemed drama critic Louis Kronenberger. So when the chance came to join the International News Service in St. Louis as a reporter, Harris took the job.

In his autobiography Harris describes—or, rather, disparages—himself at the time: "I was overwhelmed by the quantity of my deficiencies. I was neither handsome nor clean-minded, and my prospects were poor. I was argumentative, socially graceless, I couldn't dance, I couldn't sing, I didn't bathe, I drank sloppily, I had a smoker's cough, and my posture was poor."

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