Friday, March 16, 2007

Novel: Play for a Kingdom: A Difficult Task Well Performed

Play for a Kingdom, Thomas Dyja, Harcourt, 432 pp, 1997,

Can you u imagine the surprise? To find a novel that sets baseball in the context of the American Civil War? My first response: This is the legacy of Ken Burn's special on Baseball. Then after reading the dust jacket, a second response: What?! Union vs. Confederacy in nine innings between The Wilderness and Spotsylvania?! That's not possible!

I thought about it for a few weeks and I recalled a marvelous novel by Tim O'Brien, 'Going After Cacciato' which is set in the Viet Nam War, in which realism begets extended metaphor. So I gave 'Play for a Kingdom' a chance and I am glad I did. I allowed the author a certain degree of inexactitude in details; I weighted character develompent heavily and looked for a bigger story than soldier life in that great war. Thomas Dyja comes close to pulling off a great story; 'Play for a Kingdom' is not another 'Killer Angels' and it is not the sweat soaked realism of Shelby Foote's 'Shiloh.' Neither is it as wonderfully meticulous as Slotkin's 'The Crater;' it doesn't have the romance and adventure of Keneally's 'Confederates.' 'Play for a Kingdom' asks the reader to trust the characters and follow them.

The reader, familar with the American Civil War, would not expect much suspense near the end of the book; we know how it turns out. But these characters pull off some legitimate surprises in terms of dignity, humanity and authority. There are some very good scenes in 'Play for a Kingdom': the Union's march into the forest, the finding of the first baseball field, many of the battle scenes which are not panoramas, but close encounter and hand-to-hand. There are many good parts to Dyja's Civil War tale; there are enough good parts to recommend it to the casual fiction reader and the Civil War enthusiast.

Yes, I am aware of some mistakes (Company L) and some improbabilities (passing secrets, in Latin, between the skirmish lines, etc.) But its fiction damnit; I'll allow a certain degree of latitude for error and inaccurate presentation if the characters hold up and they do. So on a rainy or snowy weekend, uncork a liter of wine or a fifth of Southern Comfort, take your shoes off and be prepared not to get out of your easy chair for a weekend.

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