This book is one of a handful of great American sports novels. And like most great sports novels its not really about sports at all. On the surface the book tells the story of pitcher Henry Wiggin of the New York Mammoths baseball team and a single season in the mid-1950s. But below the surface its the story of Wiggins' friendship with a third string catcher named Bruce Pearson, who is dying of Hodgkin's disease. The story is refreshingly not overly sentimental which it could easily be given the subject matter. Rest assured, the book is full of home runs, stolen bases, solid pitching and locker room antics, but as the Mammoths move late into the summer and the pennant race heats up, the reader knows that the book is really about friendship and the unfairness of life.
Harris uses a somewhat strange first person vernacular to tell the story, but after the first couple of pages it seems as if Henry Wiggin is talking directly to you over a beer or a cup of coffee, telling you...
"Bang the Drum Slowly" has two familiar themes. One is the story of the way a doomed man may spend his last best year on earth. The other is the story of how a quarrelsome group of raucous individualists is welded into an effective combat outfit. The doomed man is the catcher from the backwoods, Bruce Pearson, who on the diamond only knows what he is told, and frequently has a good deal of trouble assimilating that. The slow but sure to triumph team is called the New York Mammoths, The story, on the other hand, is told in the words of that splendid Mammoth pitcher and man of letters, Henry Wiggen, who is his own, as well as Bruce Pearson's, best friend. When Pearson learns that he is doomed he turns to Wiggen. The club, Wiggen decides, will never give Pearson another chance if the management finds out the truth. Therefore, the indispensable Wiggen holds out until he can negotiate a contract carrying Pearson through a lean time and guaranteeing himself some fat bonuses for...
I liked this book for two reasons. One is that the dialogue and camaraderie between the ball players was realistic right down to their nicknames given to them by teammates such as "Author" and "Canada" The baseball season is realistic as well and of course New York comes out on top.
The friendship between Henry and Bruce is what really makes this story a classic. It doesn't really start off that way since Henry sold insurance to Bruce (back when ballplayers needed a job in the offseason for the extra income) and then finds out afterward about Bruce's condition. The journey Henry takes while his friend is dying is humorous, poignant and sad, yet surprisingly upbeat through most of it. Deserves its status as a classic.
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