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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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In September 1945, Harris mistakenly identified Springfield, Mo., as Springfield, Ill., in one of his dispatches and promptly received by telephone a dressing down from the Illinois Springfield's INS bureau chief, Josephine Horen. Harris was too captivated by the sound of the reproachful voice to feel contrite. Instead, he launched a campaign to win the angry woman over, commuting regularly between St. Louis and Springfield.

Mark and Josephine were married on March 17, 1946 (and last spring celebrated their 44th anniversary). It was Josephine, a West Virginia native and a graduate of Marshall College (now Marshall University) there, who persuaded him to try college. At 26, he finally did, choosing the University of Denver because of an advanced creative-writing course taught by professor Alan Swallow. By the time he earned his doctorate from Minnesota in 1956, Harris had published four novels, including The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly. But academic life gave him a sense of security, and though he battled with faculty and administrations almost everywhere he went—from San Francisco State to Purdue to the California Institute of the Arts to Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, to USC to Pitt and to Arizona State—he never left it.

In Best Father, Harris portrays himself as a moody, irascible, sometimes deeply tormented man forever at odds with the establishment. He became periodically depressed over his work, dismissing even his first success, The Southpaw, as "facile realism in a facile style."

His life seemed to be one big rebellion. He had become an academic in reaction to his father's disapproval of college, and a writer of baseball books in reaction to the professorial stuffed shirts who regarded such work with contempt. He fought an epic battle, ultimately successful, to quit smoking. He suffered from frequent, possibly stress-related illnesses. He struck his three children in anger. If Wiggen was a nice guy who finished first, Harris began to see himself more as his character's opposite. Wiggen became a surrogate of sorts for that other pitcher, Apell, who had become for Harris a "classical good boy to my classical bad...he who died in the war I had chosen not to enter."

Best Father, in which Harris flays himself so mercilessly, was written in the 1960s and published in 1976. That Harris scarcely exists in '90. Now he is a man who has come to terms with his work and with himself. Critics no longer wound him; other writers do not threaten him. If he criticizes himself now, it is mostly in fun.

"You know, I never wrote those baseball books with any sense that they would be popular," he says, relaxing in the dining room of his fine southwestern-style house in Tempe. "I wrote them because that was the next thing I wanted to do. I didn't even realize The Southpaw was being read until someone came up to me one day while I was playing Softball and said, 'Hey, I thought you'd be a lefthander.' Yes, I guess it's true that I'm mellower now. A lot of things I fretted about I don't fret about anymore. I don't accept everything as is, certainly, but I'm not as competitive as I used to be. When I wrote Best Father, it accurately expressed my feelings back then. That was a time when I suppose I considered myself a kind of hot free agent. Now I've come to realize that one person is really not all that much better than another. Maybe that is knowledge that comes with age."

"You are a lefthander, Henry. You always was. And the world needs all the lefthanders it can get, for it is a righthanded world. You are a southpaw in a starboarded atmosphere. Do you understand?"

"Sure I understand," said I. "I am not such a stupid goon as you might think."

"Exactly," she said. Then she begun to cry a little, and she fought against it, and when she had control over herself she spoke further. "I hold your hand, "she said, "and your hand is hard, solid like a board. That is all tight, for it must be hard against the need of your job. On a job such as yours your hand grows hard to protect itself. But you have not yet growed calluses on your heart, ft is not yet hard against the need of your job. It must never become hard like your hand. It must stay soft."
—The Southpaw

Harris is playing first base for a softball team of academics at Tempe Beach Park, just outside the Arizona State campus. He is wearing a white T-shirt, baggy gray gym pants and white tennis shoes with green laces. He is the oldest player by many years. The pitcher on his team is a man in his 20's who wears a Stanford sweatshirt, and the shortstop, in an Oxford T-shirt, is roughly the same age. The game, as one might expect from such a crowd, is civilized. No balls or strikes are called, and the last inning is played whenever the participants feel like quitting.

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