Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review: "Cardboard Gods" by Josh Wilker

I've been reading Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods blog and its awesome essays for about three years now and when I heard he was writing a book, I had very high expectations. The book turned out to be better than I'd hoped it would be. Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards is a colorful, extremely well-written and entertaining book about baseball, the 70s, and the author's unusual upbringing. It is also sort of a bildungsroman, taking us through the story of the author's growth and giving us a history of how the book itself came into existence. And it's all done through the summoning power of funky 1970s baseball cards.

The book itself, physically, is beautiful---one of the nicest-looking books I've ever come across. The dust jacket resembles the thin, wax-paper-like wrapper from old baseball cards and inside the front and back covers are smatterings of colorful cards with their front faces (grainy images of sunlit fields, old tightly-worn jerseys, stirrups, Rollie Fingers' mustache) at the beginning of the book and the back of the cards (the rows of stats, little cartoons printed on cardboard) splattered in between the final page and back cover.

The story consists of 4 parts or "packs," each opening with an old photo from Wilker's life superimposed seamlessly into a baseball card. In each part, Wilker weaves the stories from his life into essays which always begin with a baseball card from his old collection that seems to summon and somehow tie the story, the 70s era, and the cards together. It becomes clear that the world of his old baseball cards represents a sort of mythology for Wilker, the way he describes the process of opening a new pack it's as if the slab of chewing gum he consumes was his transubstantiating sacrament which injected a "blast of sugar" into his veins "so that the arrival of my newest gods coincided exactly with the sweet, fleeting bliss I'd come to need." Early on, he discusses a 1974 Cleon Jones card that was the first one in his collection, "There has to be a beginning in any cosmology, and I have subconsciously and consciously come to believe that Cleon Jones is mine, the central figure in my flimsy personal religion." The card shows the Mets outfielder after just having struck a line drive and from its image Wilker presents a brilliant opening and introduction to his story:
A loud crack had just occurred, setting everything in motion. In the very next second, Cleon Jones is going to start running as fast as he can, and from the looks of it he is going to run for a while before having to stop. It's that moment when everything has just begun, and you don't know how it'll turn out, and you can't help assuming it'll be great.
The next three chapters are wonderful: Mike Kekich, a pitcher who swapped families with another player only to decide it wasn't working and get denied by his old wife, is the god who highlights Wilker's weird home situation featuring a mom, a dad, and a Tom (mom meets Tom on a bus to Washington, D.C. for a peace march); Herb Washington, the only "pinch runner" in major league history, a crazy experiment, coalesces with Wilker's defense of mom and Tom's eventual decision to leave civilization and live off the land; Wilbur Wood, a throwback name with a throwback record pitching in the 70s, throws a young Josh's understanding of "clean, well-defined" systems amuck similar to his parent's experimentation. This is all just in Part 1 of the book, which gives us a hilarious portrait of a family while at the same time painting a portrait of the times. His mother's hippie boyfriend (who is described as always wearing jeans and a yellow Superman t-shirt), in an attempt to become more self-sufficient, learns how to be a blacksmith and tries to make a living as such with a forge built into the back of a VW van with a chimney coming out of the roof.

Even while they're the focal point of the hippie lifestyle their parents (well, their mother and Tom) try to adapt, Josh and older brother Ian---"they wanted us to grow up wild and free, bounding barefoot through meadows, uncorrupted"---pay almost no attention to it and instead devote all their attention to baseball. Especially the Red Sox. And especially Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski ("Come on, Yaz!" is a sort of leitmotif recurring all throughout the book). They occasionally get to head over to Fenway Park from their rural house in the woods of Vermont and see the gods in person; in the first game Josh attends he witnesses the spectacle of Reggie Jackson, the central character of 1970s baseball, and lists the numerous reasons why Reggie "the iconoclast who shattered baseball's implicit ban on facial hair" was truly the epitome of baseball in the 1970s. (Wilker later describes his dad's temporary mustache from that decade: "I have sometimes thought of the mustache he wore during the 1970s as hair shrapnel, a fragment of the general hairiness of the culture of the time that seemed to have landed randomly on my dad's face.) Then we see the awesome 1976 card of Johnny Bench whose "gunslinger pose revealed him as a hero from an earlier, simpler time" and the card is a favorite of young Wilker who "had to cling to the last few shreds of that simple path wherever he found them while besieged on all sides by uncertainty." His parents had sent him to a special hippie school where there were no desks, just beanbag chairs and no fixed curriculum, just the freedom to create.

During this time, his father stayed back in New York to work as a sociologist. A dedicated, hard-working, and simple man, his father doesn't like baseball and doesn't seem to have any sort of social life but he'd go up to Vermont to visit his sons and bring huge, movie theater-sized boxes of candy. The two boys would go down to New York and their father took them to Mets games once a year. For Josh's twelfth birthday his father gives him a diary and tells him he must write in it everyday, bestowing the wisdom that "the creative life is the most worthwhile existence available" but young Josh brushes it aside "as if I were agreeing to brush my teeth after eating a box of M&Ms." He's a weird kid who doesn't listen, doesn't do anything normally, and annoys the shit out of his conservative dad culminating one morning when, seeing Josh eat his normal bowl of milkless cereal, his dad flips out on him ("You don't do anything right!") before begging forgiveness but the author fully concedes his own strangeness as a youth and lists the ways he wasn't quite right, including:
  • "I daydreamed too much" 
  • "I didn't know which way to look when we crossed streets while walking around in the city"
  • "I'd wet the foam mattress I slept on in my dad's apartment"
  • "The only thing I knew about was baseball, which was silly and devoid of worth" 
There's some embarrassing teenager stories conveyed as the adolescent Wilker becomes assimilated into the world of puberty, refusing to "go with" (kiss) giggly girls pining for him and later becoming an expert onanist. His older brother, an idol and initiator for most of Josh's life, starts to drift away from his dorky younger bro a little bit and so Josh, a loner, becomes even more immersed in the baseball world. The chapter on the lanky Pittsburgh Pirates' fireman Kent Tekulve is one of my favorite in the book as Wilker relates to the loner with his "thick glasses and bulging Adam's apple and mathematician wrists and ungainly, unmanly submarine delivery" who, playing on the roster for the "We Are Family" 1979 Pirates is like "a gray crayon in the box of multicolored Crayolas" lurking in the bullpen while the players in the dugout "laughed and strutted and slapped five like they'd just come offstage from a sweaty, glittering ass-shaking gig with George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars."

He attends a boarding school in Massachusetts (as a classmate of Uma Thurman, although that isn't mentioned in the book) and gets kicked out for smoking pot in his dorm room. While waiting outside the office of a committee that would decide whether or not he'd be expelled, Josh runs into a heavily-accented Middle Eastern classmate who suggests that he go into the committee and tell them "To suck! Your fucking! Dick!" but instead he receives a verbal lashing and gets kicked out of highschool. He goes on to receive a GED, attend a small state college and receive a degree in creative writing which, when he got out of school, "was as useful, professionally speaking, as a degree in pointing at clouds and saying what they resembled." A gloomy, seemingly pathetic period of balking at the entrance of Life, wasting time, going away for a nondescript trip to Europe, working at a UPS loading dock and in a liquor store ensues. There's a great line where a random passerby says to Josh, "Damn, you look like you getting your ass kicked by life." His childhood idol brother also spends time working for UPS (I certainly don't mean to associate UPS with pathetic dead-end jobs, mind you) and things briefly seem gloomy and languid as they've grown up. One afternoon on the way home from a court date for stealing a poster out of a movie theater lobby, the brothers (and pal Pete) pass Yankee Stadium ("Fuck you, Yankee Stadium" the Sox fans yell) and then crash into a car on the Macombs Dam Bridge, leading to a scene where Wilker watches his brother age before his eyes when a "battalion of muscular young Bronx residents from the other car commenced screaming at him" and his brother, with his totaled car, no insurance, barely getting by, resembles "a pitcher with nothing left and no help on the way, a mop-up man who has to stay in the box and take a beating as the boos rain down."

Things brighten up in the end, though. The most beautiful card in the entire book is that of Rickey Henderson in 1980 and, fittingly, it opens the chapter where Wilker meets his eventual wife. By this time, he'd begun occasionally pulling out cards from his childhood collection and summoning memories from that time, jotting them down in a notebook. In the final chapter, Wilker has moved to Chicago with his girlfriend and begun taking his writing endeavor more seriously. He flies back to attend a family therapy session with his mom and brother who've had a bit of a bumpy ride back to reality after their failed attempt at a different lifestyle in the 70s. When it's Josh's turn to speak, he blabbers a bit before realizing that, throughout that whole stressful time (living in a rundown old rural house, trying to grow their own food, going to an unorthodox hippie school with beanbag chairs and getting ridiculed by his peers, having three parents for a little while, one of which tried to make a living as a blacksmith) his life was nevertheless happy. It's a beautiful affirmation of the whole crazy story.

I know this has been an extremely long book review but, while my own writing certainly isn't that strong and convincing at this point, I hoped to try to convey the high quality of this book and the author's terrific writing. I remember the first time I came across a Cardboard Gods post and it was so entertaining and easy to relate with that I went back that afternoon and read every other post he'd written up until that time. This new book is a condensed and (with its beautiful cover, colors, and texture) enhanced version of what we get on the blog and I know I will be carrying this around and reading it periodically, savoring it for the rest of my own baseball-saturated life.

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