Happy post-holidays, happy new year.
Mrs. Icepick got me the best Christmas gift this year — the 50th anniversary critical edition of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. I was mooning about missing a talk this fall at one of the local universities on one of my favorite writers (in honor of Algren’s 100th birthday), so Mrs. Icepick bought me the novel, which of course I already owned and haven’t fully read since college. But the gem of this anniversary edition is the critical notes about post-war Chicago’s bard (even a Chicago that apparently dismissed him for so long, until it didn’t any longer, sort of) with essays from writers like Vonnegut, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and others. Russell Banks, who was one of the panelists at the talk I missed, is sadly not included here in this edition — Banks was mentored at one time by Algren and was positively influenced by him.
I was introduced to Algren’s writing by an English professor who had no use for the typical dead-white-male cauldron of Twentieth Century Writers (the first half of the century, anyway). Though she introduced us to some great works not authored by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, et al., I missed out on reading those “classic” works. Seems like there should have been two separate courses, because it turned out to be rather easy to graduate with an undergrad English degree with a concentration in American Lit without reading a lick of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and so on.
But I digress. Because the happy by-product of this was an introduction to Algren, and for that, I am eternally grateful (plus, I picked up and read from the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner nexis on my own, though it would have been nice to have some professorial guidance).
So, where was I?
It may be impolitic, I’ve found, to admit to being both an Algren and Hemingway fan, but there you have me. Hemingway was certainly an Algren fan, perhaps to the bemusement of some Algren scholars, and Algren of course visited then wrote about Hemingway.
(Digression: I loved my gift so much, but I am a piss-poor caretaker. We keep many of our opened Christmas gifts under our tree for the ensuing weeks, partly for reasons of laziness, partly to fill up the space under the slowly dying tree, partly to keep the cat from drinking the water from the damn tree stand (fail). One night, somehow, I managed to over-water the tree stand and not realize it, and the next day I was crushed to find my new book soaked. Serves me right for not putting it away, and the back pages are now all stiff and crinkly from my drying the book on a radiator.)
Anyway, geek that I am, I’m going through the essays in the new book first, rather than the novel proper. I’ve become a sucker for critical analysis in recent years. As soon as I got home well after midnight from a 10:40 p.m. showing of Avatar last weekend (awesome, by the way) I looked up movie reviews online. I do that after watching flicks on cable for the first time, too. With novels, well, who has the time to re-read the whole thing, eh, so I just jumped into the essays. So it goes.
Lost, perhaps, in the sad news last week of the death of Buffalo’s own Tim Russert was the death of another journalist — Eliot Asinof’s passing at 88 a week ago can hardly be called sudden in the way Russert’s was, especially because Big Tim was 30 years his junior.
Still, let’s not forget Asinof. His 1963 book Eight Men Out, filled with research, interviews and (according to the Times) some fiction was a groundbreaking work, and one of the many influences of The Young Icepick in his quest to become a Writer — I read it at age 15 when an edition was released to coincide with John Sayles’ excellent 1988 movie.
Asinof’s conceit, hammered home in Sayles’ film, is the eight Black Sox of 1919 were victims of a miserly owner and a unionless system that chewed them up with no chance for the freedom that today’s free agents enjoy, even though at least five of the eight were in fact guilty of throwing games to the gamblers.
The scandal ruined the lives of many yet, in an ironic way, saved the sport from shadiness by paving the way for Babe Ruth and the needed strong, centralized leadership of baseball’s Office of the Commissioner; strong and heavy-handed, and perhaps too heavy-handed at times — Ford Frick helped kill an early Asinof screenplay attempt at the Black Sox story — though Bud Selig has acted like he’s been apologetically making up for prior commissioners.
There was much heartbreak on individual lives in the pages of Eight Men Out, from the young boy’s plea of “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” to the sad decline of the talented but naive Buck Weaver, still looking for another chance to play practically until the day he collapsed and died on a street on Chicago’s Southside at age 66.
The story gets a lot of justified mileage as a tale of the Loss of American Innocence, coming on the heels of the horrors of World War I and the moralizing by the Baby Booomer-like righteous leaders of Strauss & Howe’s Missionary Generation that instituted Prohibition.
Asinof, Bruce Weber’s Times obit states, was blacklisted in the 1950s, with Asinof claiming, “after he got hold of his F.B.I. file, the blacklisting came about because ‘I had at one time signed a petition outside of Yankee Stadium to encourage the New York Yankees to hire black ballplayers.’”
The passing of Asinof, who lived in upstate Ancramdale since 1985, near where I cut some teeth covering semi-semi-semi-pro ball in cow country, was sadly missed by my sometimes favorite sports blogs, which shows there is some (some) use for newspapers still. (Though how weak is it that in Chicago, muse of Nelson Algren, home of the Black Sox story itself, the Tribune ran the obit written and distributed by the New York Times, and not by one of its own writers, perhaps highlighting the downward turn of the Sam Zell’s Tribune and the local press in general. But again, I digress.)
Happily, I discover via The Google this blog post at Bronx Banter at Baseball Toaster by writer Alex Belth, who quotes Roger Kahn as saying Asinof had “an enduring anger at what he perceived to be injustice” — my kind of hard-working writer.
Belth later quotes Glenn Stout as saying Asinof was one of the first writers (including Al Stump of Cobb fame, another Icepick favorite) to legitimize baseball history as a serious subject.