by Mark Harris. Introduction by Jon Surgal. Lincoln and London: The University of Nebraska Press, 1999. ix-xiv + 205 pages. $17.95 paper.
Mark Harris is best known for his novels about flawed but sympathetic baseball players, particularly Bang the Drum Slowly and The Southpaw. The former has become, probably because of a magnificent television drama and an underrated feature film (adapted by Harris from his novel), a minor American classic in the admittedly limited sub-genre of sports narratives. In this collection of his stories, beginning with and ending with variations on baseball fiction, Harris indicates how very delicate was the balance between sentimentality and social realism that his famous baseball novels sustained. In these smaller pieces, only a few of which are about sports but all of which are about life's little losers, Harris strikes that delicate equilibrium only a few times. The sad truth is that he misses the balance much more often than he sustains it, stumbling alternately into the Scylla of sentimentality or the Charybdis of cynicism.
Jon Surgal, in an introduction suspiciously lavish in praise and thin in criticism, constructive or otherwise, pontificates that Harris is predisposed to "imaginations of disaster." This enigmatic phrase served its creator, Henry James, very well. Characters in James's works consistently encounter their own vulnerability, whether it be to illusion, manipulation, or the sorrows of the heart. Harris's "imaginations of disaster," however, resonate on a much lower scale than do James's. That baser scale has to do with three elements: the stature of the protagonists, the comparative insignificance of their defeats, and the aesthetic value of the literary creation in which their disaster is endured. Bang the Drum is a wonderful tale, on a small scale; but it's not Henry James. And The Self-Made Brain Surgeon is a certain disappointment to those of us who remember those very special sports novels, to say nothing of those of us who still read Henry James.
The 13 stories in this collection span Harris's creative life, from "Jackie Robinson and My Sister," which dates from 1946, through "The Bonding" of 1993. The earlier piece, while not exactly a short story, deploys a journalistic irony to chastise those sportswriters who lamented the signing of Robinson in 1946 to a minor-league baseball contract. With a deft tongue in cheek, Harris answers the objection that integrating the major leagues was...