With The Southpaw, novelist Mark Harris begins the remarkable saga of a gifted baseball pitcher named Henry W. Wiggen, which would unfold in four novels over the course of some 27 years between the publication of The Southpaw (1952) and It Looked Like For Ever (1979). Harris frames The Southpaw in an irresistible way, letting the fictional hero Wiggen "tell" his own story in the vernacular -- bad grammar, run-on sentences, the works. In fact, the title page tells the reader that The Southpaw is "by Henry W. Wiggen / Punctuation freely inserted and spelling greatly improved by Mark Harris."
Henry Wiggen is a beautiful athlete -- a perfect physical specimen and a gifted left-handed pitcher in a world that generally favors the right-handed. Despite his talents and his natural grace, the unpretentious small-town boy reaches manhood by the same arduous route followed by most boys. It is complicated, in his case, by that very talent and grace, and the expectations they create in everyone. Wiggen is that rarest of fiction heroes, a certifiable good guy, without guile, who wants always to do the right thing. Even for him, the challenges posed by personal and professional needs sometimes seem to be too much, as the stakes in his career steadily rise. The Southpaw follows Wiggen from his early days all the way to the World Series, a winning story of a good man living an extraordinary life.
"By far the best ýseriousý baseball novel published," the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of The Southpaw -- a critical response that is frequently echoed in discussions of all four of Mark Harrisý novels about Henry Wiggen. The Southpaw defines Wiggen, and Harris wields his vivid, stream of conscious style with wizardly skill. His hero is not a simple or uncomplicated man, he simply sees things as they are and says what he thinks. Wiggen is one of the most disarming characters in modern American fiction, in the age of the anti-hero. Harris does not paint him as a role model but as something much more compelling -- a good man, with his share of flaws, whose basic decency allows him to be a hero. The acid test is whether the experience of The Southpaw encourages the reader to follow Wiggenýs saga in Bang the Drum Slowly. Invariably, it does.
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December 01, 2003
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Excerpt from The Southpaw by Mark Harris
First off I must tell you something about myself, Henry Wiggen, and where I was born and my folks.
Probably you never been to Perkinsville. How you get there you get an Albany train out of Grand Central Station. About halfway to Albany the conductor comes down the isle mumbling "Perkinsville." Then the train slows and you got to be quick because most of them donýt exactly stop at Perkinsville. They just slow to a creep, and if youýre an old man or woman or if you got a broke leg or something of the sort I donýt know how you get off. Generally there will be no trouble. You just throw your bags clear and you swing down off on the cement platform and you fall away the way the train is going, and then you go back for your bags. Now you are in Perkinsville.
The last time I come by train through Perkinsville it was a rainy night and the platform was slick and I damn near skidded when I hit the cement. You have saw an outfielder start after a fly ball on wet grass and how he skids before his spikes take hold. That was how I skidded on the wet platform. But nothing come of it. It was midnight or after, and it was quiet on the square, and I cut across past the Embassy Theater and down past Borelliýs barber shop where I remember a long time ago they had a big picture of Sad Sam Yale hanging over the coat-hooks. But they have since took down the picture of Sam and put up 1 of me. Now my picture is took down, too, and the space is bare.
Next to Borelliýs is Fred Levineýs cigar store where you can get most any magazine, in particular magazines like "The Baseball Digest" and "Ace Diamond Tales" and such newspapers as "The Sporting News" and 1,000 other things. Then after Fred Levineýs is Mugs OýBrienýs gymnasium, just opposite the statue of Horace Cleves, and on the corner is the Perkinsville Pharmacy.
The way you get out home from Perkinsville is a question. If you own a car like me (a 50 Moors Special) or any other car for all of that, you just drive out the hard-top road 2.7 miles from the square to where you will see a sign saying "Observatory" with an arrow pointing west. This Observatory (star-gazing) is exactly 1 mile west of the highway. It has a big telescope, 1 of the biggest. The Government wanted to use the Observatory during the war, but Aaron turned them down. Aaron rules the whole works under orders from his group of scientists and it can be used only to look at the stars and moon and such. I have saw Mars and Saturn and all the rest through it, and they all look the same except Saturn. I have also saw the moon. Sometimes there will be a squad of professors come down to look at some particular situation in the sky.
Aaron Webster kills me. I was very young when the argument with the Government took place, but I remember there was a good deal of discussion in the papers, not only in Perkinsville but everywhere, Aaron holding fast and finally winning out, and you have got to admire him for that. He is over 80 years old, his face all wrinkled up but otherwise in excellent shape, a gangly man, built like Carl Hubbell, though lighter of course, weighing about 140, mostly bone. If you ever stop at the Observatory he will come right up to you, squinting and looking at you, and tell you his name and pop right out with questions and answers, what do you think of this and that and your politics. It used to be I never liked him much. But you got to get to know him and he will grow on you.