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By Timothy Lane
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"Failure is more interesting, dramatically, than success," Schuster says. (You can almost hear him imparting that pearl of wisdom to his students at Webster.) "Who needs another down-and-out, hard-luck team that fights its way back? Success has been done and done and done." As for the magical formula, even in the low-key manner of last fall's bestseller The Art of Fielding, in which the young ballplayers have a cultlike devotion to a collection of Zen-like koans (also called The Art of Fielding)? "I never even thought of that. I never even thought about it and rejected it. I tend to write realism."
Any resemblance to another famous baseball novel, also set in Iowa, also partially involving a complicated relationship between a father and son, is entirely coincidental. "If I'd been consciously thinking of Field of Dreams," he says, "I would not have set it in Iowa. It's hard to write a novel about baseball with a male protagonist and not make it about fathers and sons. I'm not sure why." (For the record, Schuster hates the movie Field of Dreams, though he loves Shoeless Joe, the W.P. Kinsella novel it was based on. He does, however, have a bottle of dirt from the real-life "field of dreams" in Iowa, collected during a family vacation.)
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Even so, a strain of spirituality runs through The Might Have Been — one that's older (and stranger) than baseball: Catholicism. Edward Everett thinks constantly in terms of sin and consequences and worries about the growing distance between himself and the Church, which he traces back to his first Sunday as a professional ballplayer, when he chose a few more hours of sleep over Mass.
"Is this the first Catholic baseball novel?" Schuster wonders aloud on a winter's day in his office at Webster. The modest-size room is crammed with books, screenplays and photos of his wife and their children. A clock on the windowsill says: "Play ball!" and a cluster of aluminum bats is propped in the corner. "There's probably one Catholic baseball novel out there." He turns in his desk chair and Googles; up pops Catholic fiction aplenty — Brideshead Revisited, The Third Man, A Canticle for Leibowitz — all of them novels Schuster has read and loved, though none has anything to do with baseball.
At any rate, Schuster says The Might Have Been's Catholic leitmotif is more practical than profound. Consider the familiar bromide write what you know and note that Edward Everett plays baseball because baseball happens to be the sport Schuster knows best.
"It became a Catholic novel in the hospital scene [in Montreal, following the injury that will put an end to Edward Everett's days in the major leagues]," Schuster explains. "The priest showed up because someone had to. I'm not a good enough writer to do an entire chapter of a guy lying in bed by himself. Who would show up to see a guy who knows nobody? No rabbi, because I don't know the nuances of Judaism. Though they could compare guilt...."
Schuster's thesis adviser, Richard Russo, has a more nuanced take. "Maybe it's something Joe and I have in common," he says via phone from his home on the coast of Maine. "I'm a recovering Catholic. At times I still speak in the language of the Church. I've never been able to find language to speak of important matters except in the language of the Church."
When you think about it, what else but the language of the Church would be a suitable match for a subject as profound as baseball? In one of the great twentieth-century American Catholic novels, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (which also happens to be one of Schuster's favorites; he once made a pilgrimage to Percy's hometown of Covington, Louisiana), protagonist Binx Bolling can't separate his Catholic upbringing from his devotion to the movies.
(In the Schuster household, the Cardinals have always been the One True Religion. The family, scattered now that the younger Schusters have grown up and gone, observed the holiest occasion of 2011, the sixth game of the World Series, together, watching in separate locations and sharing thoughts and observations via cell phone. Between the ninth and eleventh innings, Schuster estimates, they exchanged 100 texts.)
Unlike a lot of first novels, The Might Have Been is largely devoid of autobiography — save for an epileptic Pomeranian named Grizzly who bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Schuster's dogs and a minor character who tries to sing "I Say a Little Prayer" but forgets the lyrics. Debra Carpenter, Schuster's dean at Webster, attributes this to the writer's maturity. Schuster himself claims it's because he's not sufficiently interesting.
Kenny Cook views it a little differently: "In terms of an autobiographical thread — and I don't think Joe would see this — it's coming to terms with a late-life commitment to a vocation you love without the promise of success."
Cook is right. "Kenny's more reflective about it than I am," Schuster laughs. Given time to reflect himself, however, he has a different answer:
"I've known people who get to a certain age and are consumed with regret and bitterness about the way their lives have turned out; it sometimes becomes the main fact of their lives at that point," he notes. "When I thought about what I wanted to do in my own life and hadn't to that point — I wanted to write novels. I had no idea whether what I wrote would get published, but I knew that if I didn't at least work as hard as I could to write the best novel I could, I might turn out to be one of those people who were filled with regret. I didn't want to do that, and so the only way I knew I could avoid it was to keep working at the novel. It might not end up published, I thought, but at least if I finished it, I wouldn't wake up one day years down the road and think about how I hadn't even tried to do what I wanted to do."
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