Regular price: $19.95
Buy Now with 1 Credit
Buy Now for $19.95
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Joe Kraus on 05-18-18
Thoughtful Novel Never Develops Characters
In some ways, the most intriguing part of this novel is its title. Like “alienist,” celebrant is a word that once upon a time meant a combination of concepts that have since been refined and separated. Someone who was a celebrant was part fan, part artistic admirer of a performer, and part residual believer in some religious ritual.
In that way, this novel sets out to explore the entwined and sometimes conflicting dimensions in which a young man comes to appreciate the baseball world of pre-World War I, a time during which the great Christy Matthewson emerged as the first of the all-time legends of the game. Jake admires Matthewson so much that he refuses multiple opportunities to meet him, choosing instead to design a commemorative ring as part of his work with his family’s rapidly growing jewelry firm. He is, in that regard, a fan, someone taking pleasure at a distance from a man slowly being deified by a game that’s attracting more and more attention from the American public.
At the same time, Jake and his family are Jews, first-generation immigrants who – while growing in wealth – still experience anti-Semitism. (It’s mild, but the most clear-cut example of it, harassment at the hands of a couple of players, rankles Jake for years.) He’s still occasionally an observant Jew, and he seems confident his children will embrace the identity as well, but part of what he finds in baseball is the opportunity to embrace an American faith. He is, therefore, a ‘celebrant’ in the sense that he wants to bring out what he sees as the deep-seated purity of the game. He won’t take money for the ring, for instance, wanting to keep his admiration pure.
When you cross that insight with Greenberg’s own celebrant-like appreciation for the first era in which professional baseball became the nation’s real pastime, there are a lot of things to find interesting in the novel. The history is tight and clever; as a one-time committed adolescent baseball historian myself, I know a lot of these stories, and I’m impressed to see them from fresh angles. We get “Merkle’s Boner” in real-time, before it’s frozen into clear-cut history. We get the Black Sox scandal as it slowly unfolds, before Shoeless Joe Jackson gets cast as a tragic figure for the century that follows. And, above all, we get the apotheosis of Matthewson, the first of the first players elected to the Hall of Fame, while he is still a human and not yet an eternal.
In such a light, this book is exactly the sort I’ve been looking for in the class my friend Will and I are preparing about the intersection of fandom and faith. Maddeningly, though, it falls short. As rich as it is in history and concept, it misses out on the real drama of creating characters who shape a larger narrative. It not only makes present the lost moment of the turn of the last century, but it also embraces that period’s literary technology. This is a novel dominated by old-school Realism; it owes its style and form more to William Dean Howells than to the generations of innovators who’ve come since.
If Jake is the character who embodies the central intellectual conflict of the novel, he does so as a mostly empty body. There’s no clear personal impetus, no explanation for why he in particular feels as he does. He’s the family artist – with no backstory on how he came to be so – and that casts him in a role separate from his siblings.
In contrast, Eli, comes to represent the serpent-like power of gambling in the face of baseball. He loves the game less for itself than for the prospect of using it to discover secret sources of income, to make it a joyful way to compete without paying the price of becoming an athlete himself. Eli is alive and energetic; he’s clearly Jake’s favorite brother, and he is the salesman primarily responsible for building the family business.
From the other side, we have brother Arthur, who has no affection at all for baseball but recognizes ways of using it to help with their corporate growth. He represents a different serpent, not the original one that devastated baseball with the Black Sox scandal but rather the one that threatens it now, the one that sees it as nothing more than a commercial opportunity, one where profits have to be maximized without respect to the joy that inspired the game in the first place.
Both brothers provide useful intellectual contrast to Jake’s quiet, religious-like appreciation of the game, but neither does so from the perspective of a fully formed character. Each is a stock figure, defined expressly for the purpose of offering that contrast rather than as a character who finds his way to such opposition. All three are brothers, for instance, yet there’s no explanation for how they turn out so differently.
(SPOILER: In one of the closing scenes of the novel, with Matthewson slowly dying from the gas he inhaled during World War I, Matthewson explicitly compares himself to a dying Christ and holds Jake to a difficult purity of faith, one that means the end of Eli’s hopes and, in effect, costs Eli his life. Just in case that point isn’t clear, the novel’s final words – as Jake reflects on what it meant to see his hero, possibly his savior, wither and die – are “Eli, Eli,” the same words the dying Christ speaks on the cross.)
It’s frustrating to find a book dealing with such compelling topics that does so with so heavy-handed an approach. I know there are many who admire this as one of the really fine baseball books of the last quarter century, but I’m afraid I don’t see it. It is a remarkable act of baseball historical fiction, and it poses a series of thoughtful questions about the nature of fandom. But at that other level – the level of taking material and finding fully formed characters who seem genuinely to live – I don’t find it all that compelling a novel.