Home Book Reviews The Southpaw by Mark Harris

The Southpaw by Mark Harris

by Matt Smith

(Bison Books, 1984) 350 pages

Mark Harris’ book Bang the Drum Slowly is used by many as a yardstick against which you can judge the quality of a baseball novel.  It therefore seems fitting to go back to the first book in this series of four (‘Bang …’ being the second) to see how it matches up against its more illustrious brother.

In doing so you find that The Southpaw is a good read, even if it does feel like the warm-up to the main event. 

The Southpaw introduces us to Henry Wiggen, a pitcher for the New York Mammoths who is moved to write a book in response to a critical article about him by a local hack.  Addressing the reader in a first-person narrative, Wiggen pulls no punches as he tries to set the record straight for the “100,000,000 boobs and flatheads that swallowed down whole the lies of Krazy Kress”.

Wiggen recounts his life story up to that point, taking us through his childhood to the end of his first Major League season with the Mammoths.  We meet many characters along the way, not least his team mates, but they pale into insignificance against Wiggen himself. 

The writing style helps to get Wiggen’s character across and provides plenty of scope for humorous asides.  The “SPECIAL WARNING TO ALL READERS!!!” page at the front of the book, revealing the debates had over whether or not to blank out the clubhouse swear words, sets the tone for the rest of the novel.  I particularly like the comments Harris includes here (and also in ‘Bang …’ ) where Wiggen shows his contempt for the fans, just as sportsmen often seem to think that unless you have played the game at the highest level then your opinion doesn’t count.

One such gloriously uninhibited comment sees Wiggen remarking that fans “will clap and cheer at something that anybody knows is bad baseball.  Then on a good play, something that is really hard to pull off, they will sit there like their arm was paralyzed or their jaw broke”.

It says a lot about Wiggen that he would put such statements in his book without thinking that those same fans would be reading it. 

Wiggen is no All American hero, nor is he a villainous creep.  You sometimes think he is a fool, a braggart, a cheat and a coward.  Yet there are also moments when you see another side to him, such as his disgust at the racial segregation endured by his team mate Perry Simpson and his genuine ideals of friendship.  In other words he is painted as a normal human being, with good points and bad. 

This works because Wiggen often reveals these points unwittingly.  His outwardly cocksure nature means that he simply writes what he thinks, without the self-censorship that normally clouds real-life accounts by sportsmen.  Nobody else would so revealingly state his relief at pitching his final game of the season and being glad that he no longer had to be under the pressure of the pennant race.  It’s not the macho thing to admit, but you suspect it’s close to the truth of how many sportsmen feel.

We see too many of Wiggen’s faults to hold him in any great affection.  If he was a more likeable, story-book hero character you would perhaps get wrapped up in the pennant race to a greater extent.  As it is, you don’t really find yourself willing the Mammoths on and excitedly turning the page to see the outcome of the next game.

But in truth the pennant race is secondary to the main theme of the story: how Wiggen is affected by the situations he faces and how his personality and character change as a result.  The same can be said with ‘Bang…’, in which the games provide a backdrop upon which the central theme of mortality is explored.  Unsurprisingly, there is more emotional weight to the latter theme which is ultimately why that book has more of an impact than its predecessor.

Bang the Drum Slowly is such a good book that if The Southpaw was simply a necessary part of the writing process (Harris developing Wiggen’s first-person narrative voice) then it would have been a worthwhile piece of work.  But The Southpaw is certainly more than just a stepping stone. Wiggen is a strong character to build around and his journey from childhood to the big leagues will appeal to any baseball fan.

Have you read “The Southpaw”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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1 comment

Joe Cooter March 12, 2009 - 11:02 am

These are definately two books that seem worth reading. I saw the Movie version of Bang the Drum Slowly staring Micheal Moriarty and Robert Dinero, it was very very poinant. The story of a dying athlete trying to have one more season in the sun, is at times heartwarming and sad.I highly recommend that movie.


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