My life and my brain have calmed enough that, for the first time in a long time, I was able to finish reading a book. I’d picked up a dozen or so in the last year, but either they were uninteresting (a lot of titles about adolescent angst…what’s up with that?) or I found them annoying (like this one). After so many failed attempts among the offerings of current fiction, I decided to try something that wasn’t waiting in my TBR pile.
The question was: What?
Fate intervened, and tossed a title my way. Bang the Drum Slowly is a title I’d been aware of, but never read. I am not a big sports fan — oh, I watch the Seahawks and I enjoy a baseball game, but I don’t follow any of it — so Mark Harris’s book about a mediocre catcher who is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s during a pennant race wasn’t high on my list. But a stray mention of it as a prime example of mid-20th century fiction caught my eye, and I figured, what the hell, give it a chance. It couldn’t be worse than some of the others I’d started this year.
What I found was something I did not expect: a unique voice and structure. Well, unique in my reading experience, anyway.
The story is told in first person — not my favorite, so I had to press onward through that prejudice — and in a voice that is both stilted and casual, pedantic and uneducated. It was a bit off-putting, to be honest. It is rife with grammatical errors and malapropisms. The narrator uses of instead of have, as in “I should of done something,” and misuses verb tense regularly. Homonyms are swapped in for their correct cousins — sweet instead of suite, libel instead of liable — and numbers are rarely spelled out but left as numerals. On the other hand, the narrator doesn’t use contractions, preferring instead the full wording of do not instead of don’t, is not instead of isn’t, and so forth, which gives the narration a particularly wooden aspect. Moreover, this stilted delivery is how everyone in the book speaks; all dialogue follows the same rule regardless of if the speaker is educated or not, young or old, male or female.
I simply could not get into the voice, couldn’t hear it in my head, kept stumbling over misused words and plodding through monosyllabic dialogue. Then, to illustrate to my wife the difficulty I was having, I read a section aloud to her as an example.
And suddenly, it worked.
Once I read the words aloud, once I got my mouth around them, the rhythm and the pace became apparent. I’d been reading too fast, my discomfort urging me forward, but when I slowed down, I could hear the conversational tone. Even the reason for the lack of contractions became clear to me, for the voice Harris used was part of the character. The narrator, nicknamed “Author” because he writes books, did not have a lot of schooling; he’s just a young man who plays baseball. As a result, he speaks with a strong vernacular style, but (and here’s the thing) he knows it. And he doesn’t like it. So he tries to make his writing a bit more … upscale … by removing all the apostrophes. (I’m not guessing at this; the narrator tells us this explicitly later on.)
I’ve never read a first-person story where the voice was so much a reflection of the character. It’s an in-your-face style that does not fade into the background. It’s there in word choice, in syntax, in punctuation, everywhere, and it’s unmistakable.
Having removed that particular stumbling block, I read on, and about halfway through I noticed something else: The structure of the story was not following the usual pattern.
As writers, we hear all the common wisdom of “rising action” and pacing. We know that a graph of the action in our plots should form a series of inverted check marks, rise to a peak and drop off, rise to a second and higher peak and drop off, rise to the third and highest peak of the climax and then the denouement. Like a mountain range. I’ve heard this from teachers, editors, lecturers, and publishers. Rising action, intensified risk, setback after setback until the hero prevails. It’s the stamp of a blockbuster novel.
And in Bang the Drum Slowly, it’s completely absent.
To be fair, this book is not an action-packed thriller, but even so, I wasn’t expecting what I encountered.
If I were to graph out the action in this book, it’d look like the curve of a logarithmic progression. Start at zero and then flat flat flat flat slow rise slow rise a little more then whoosh up to the top of the chart and … scene. Seriously, the action is really that sudden. The climax of the story (and it’s the only rising action) is about two pages from the end. The denouement — if you can call it that — is only a few paragraphs long.
It’s unconventional, to say the least, but really, the story wouldn’t work as well if it had followed the standard mountain range trope. With this structure, it lulls you like the baseball season itself, with its slow progression, its layering of complexities as the bosses concerns grow, as word of the teammate’s diagnosis leaks out, as the ongoing pennant race tightens, and as the team slowly transforms from a group of players to a ball club, a tribe, a family.
The book isn’t about baseball, per se, and you do not have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. In fact, if you’re a big baseball fan, you might be disappointed. The particulars about the pennant race and the games are delivered with perfunctory efficiency, never dwelled on or over-analyzed. The sport is, like everything else in the book, just a part of the portrait, necessary to the whole, but not much on its own.
Give it a shot, if you feel so inclined. I think you’ll find it as instructive as it is enjoyable.