White Cats, Black Squares, Idiots and the C.I.A.: An Accidental Summer Syllabus

This summer I accidentally read a bunch of books about Eastern Europe. It all started when the New Yorker featured “Constructed Worlds”, a short story excerpt of “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman, in January. The absurdist tone and astute observations of college life led me on a one-day, three-library odyssey to seek out a copy once it was widely available in the Westchester system.

But wait – this was only after I happened upon “My Cat Yugoslavia” while on the hunt for “Surveys” in the New Books section of the Mid-Manhattan Library. It was the first Summer Friday of 2017 at my office, and I was providing evening coverage in return for the morning off. I was eager to finally get my hands on “Surveys” after being alerted to its presence by Natasha Stagg leaving the editorial staff of V Magazine, and subsequently updating her in our database. An unexpected perk of my line of work: the amount of books I’ve encountered while updating the authors’ contact info. When I first looked up “Surveys” in the Westchester system, it was only stocked in White Plains, a location that is not part of my usual rotation. Happily, it was on the shelf in Mid-Manhattan, a branch with which I enjoy a love-hate relationship due to their draconian coffee policies.

Anyway, while prowling through Mid-Manhattan after having picked up Surveys, I encountered My Cat Yugoslavia also lurking in the New Books section. A Finnish novel about a talking cat? Somehow I missed the New Yorker review of this one, and I am legit peeved that no family members or associates referred me to this title after seeing the review. I headed to work with “Surveys” and “My Cat Yugoslavia” stuffed in my backpack, but no copies of The Idiot were available, which is what led me to seek it out in Westchester soon after.

When you search Elif Batuman in the WLS catalog, the sixth result is Sophie Pinkham’s “Black Square”. I also recognized Pinkham’s byline from work and was intrigued enough by the summary to acquire her debut at the New Rochelle Library when we went east for the farmer’s market that afternoon. But before actually consuming this title, I was diverted to Lindsay Moran’s “Blowing My Cover: My Life as a C.I.A. Spy”, acquired while roving the well-appointed biography section of the Bronxville branch, an unexpected pickup that nonetheless tied into my accidental non-occidental theme.

Below is a brief description of these four titles, all of which provide an engaging summer read, depending on your tastes:

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci
Cats, snakes, Finland, Kosovo and gay culture: this is one of the most unique books I’ve ingested in a minute. Suggested summer reading for any current or former coworkers, or my parents, since there are elements reminiscent of a story that my sister and I would have concocted in 1998 for our fictitious contentious town of Saratoga Sky.

My Cat Yugoslavia

Availability:
NYPL: 16 copies, about half of them available in the New Books section
Westchester: 11 copies, mostly still on hold, but available in New Books or New Fiction in a number of the Sound Shore locations. Am surprised it’s not stocked in the river towns due to the significant Albanian population.

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman
Memorable characters, scenarios and the steady urbane voice of a fellow New Jersey native outweigh a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. I recently met some Harvard students who were all familiar with the novel due to its environs, and mentioned that it purposely ends inconclusively because there is a sequel planned. Also that it was inspired by Don Quixote, like the original novel by the same title.

For Ivy League grads or students, second generation immigrants, those from academically inclined families, those intrigued by languages, or the frequent residents in the middle of this Venn diagram.

Availability:
NYPL: 118 copies, most still on hold
Westchester: 33 copies, 15 currently available – many in New Books section

Blowing My Cover: My Life as a C.I.A. Spy, by Lindsay Moran
Unlike the other titles featured here, this one is less recent, published in 2005, but still relevant for my accidental syllabus due to some of the action unfolding in Bulgaria and Macedonia and surfeit of colorful personalities featured throughout. I wonder what Moran would make of Macedonia as the modern hub of fake news? This one’s for you if you feel you may have missed your calling in a less adventurous position at the C.I.A. than the one that Moran pursued.

Availability:
NYPL: how is this thing not stocked at the NYPL, or is it out of circulation after being an erstwhile sensation?
Westchester: 8 copies, all available

Black Square, by Sophie Pinkham
The last offering in this group of four, I took a break from Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” (speaking of urbane New Jersey natives ) to pursue this one. While there are no talking cats or bumbling diplomats here, there are similar ruminations on languages to those put forth in “The Idiot” and a sobering overview of modern Ukraine and the conflicts it faces. Pinkham weaves a variety of subtle connections between drug use, hopelessness, intricate ethnic and linguistic allegiances and the lust for war in this gripping ethnographic debut. It’s as if Biohazard – There and Back collided with a gentle third-person account on contemporary conflict and the potential for nefarious forces behind it.

The glib generalizations presented as negatives in the New York Times review are instead to me the soul and humor of the narrative, as the elements that tie Black Square to the absurdity present in the other three titles described here.

For fans of: Ukraine and offbeat revolutionaries. Also includes a throwaway comment that Yiddish was once briefly an official language of Ukraine, which deserves some additional unpacking.

Availability:
NYPL – 10 copies
Westchester – 6 copies, all available besides the one on my coffee table

Surely Not: Cotton Candy Shirley Temple

In the era post Posi Numbers, road trips through Pennsylvania can only lead to two things: 1) multiple Sheetz visits, which in turn lead to 2) the stockpiling of cotton candy Faygo.

In honor of these delicacies acquired in the Land of Kings/Land of Sheetz, I have invented the Surely Not, or a Shirley Temple with cotton candy Faygo in lieu of ginger ale. This potion is not to be confused with the Red White & Blue, a normal Shirley featuring blue cherries, which must be consumed while listening to Cold as Life.

The Surely Not:
12 oz Cotton Candy Faygo
1 dash of grenadine
1 dash of maraschino cherry juice
2 Roland Wild Berry maraschino cherries (blue maraschino cherries)

The resulting concoction is a grayish purple, like a darker Riptide Rush Gatorade. It can also be mistaken for iced coffee from afar. Woe betide any would-be iced coffee thieves attempting to snag a swig of this off your desk.

Serves: one lucky motherfucker.

Admiring and Acquiring in Sidney, NY

On the way from the Catskills to Chenango County, we stopped on a whim in Sidney, NY. While at first glance Sidney appears to have seen better days, it is alive with treats, deals and advice from locals.

We arrived via Main Street (Route 23) and parked in the gravel lot near Trackside Dining. I was thoroughly enjoying the preponderance of free parking upstate. A number of businesses along Main Street have closed due to the flood mitigation project and the street being torn up as a result, but don’t let the lack of sidewalks deter you. Locals are keenly aware of how this situation affects commerce, and make up for its appearance by being extra helpful to customers.

Rainbow’s End Consignment Shop
37 Main Street, Sidney, NY 13838

We passed another thrift shop that had closed for the day, but made our way through the construction to Rainbow’s End, which was fortuitously open. Definitely worth visiting for secondhand blazers, books, tapes, and friendly recommendations from staff. As a petite and difficult fit, I was surprised to pick up two blazers, for $1 and $4 respectively, along with a variety of books. Finding The Face on the Milk Carton here has jumpstarted my rereading of the entire series, and also resulted in a non-facetious “what grade are you going into?” by a librarian back home in Westchester when I sought a subsequent installment.

We couldn’t leave behind a copy of Sheer Terror – Beaten by the Fists of God, a small clue into the existence of hardcore somewhere in the vicinity. I wish I had brought some In Effect stickers. Overall this place was more worthwhile and less overwhelming than Mrs. B’s, a mega thrift store in Norwich that we visited the next day.

A request regarding where in town we might acquire an iced coffee led to the recommendation of Treats N Eats…

Treats N Eats
21 Union Street, Sidney, NY 13838

While Treats N Eats did not sell iced coffee, it did offer a variety of consolation prizes. We ordered the onion pedal (sic) and my degenerate travel companion requested a maple coffee milkshake. When the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Kelly asked what kind of ice cream I wanted, DTC interjected that I was lactose intolerant. She immediately offered Lactaid ice cream as an alternate base. Ironically, I’ve never seen Lactaid ice cream featured at a downstate ice cream spot, probably because it’s not actually vegan and therefore only enticing to those with lactose issues, but I was happy to find it here.

Treats N Eats uses an old style ice cream machine that blends pieces of the chosen flavor with chocolate or vanilla ice cream, so I was able to order root beer flavored Lactaid ice cream (pictured below with an onion embellishment.)

In the best of both worlds, Treats N Eats is under new management and therefore open later, but retaining their signature decadent offerings. Definitely worth a visit for the ice cream aficionado for whom Sidney’s used book and clothing offerings are also a draw.

Distance to Points Elsewhere:
30 minutes from Oneonta (Trailways bus service from NYC)
Under an hour from Cooperstown
1½ hours from Scranton
3+ hours from NYC

No Reason to Bibliophile? Intrepid Bmize Investigates:

As an unabashed snob about hardcore, I can’t help but also be discerning about bookstores. I was raised with high standards in book-fertile central New Jersey and then spoiled impossibly by working three doors down from Micawber Books. As a Westchester dweller but city toiler, I have a foot in both worlds and end up doing most of my book shopping in NYC or out of state. Post-Epsteins forays to Barnes & Noble on Central Ave leave me despondent and unfulfilled, and I usually have to hit up McNally Jackson or Greenlight for my Marie-Helene Bertino or Cornish Trilogy needs.

Yet retail establishments are slowly catching up with my cantankerous purchasing preferences. First Generation Records began its return to form as a legit destination for the unfaulty hardcore consumer (semi Nobody’s Perfect reference to assess who’s actually reading this.) Then a bespoke Barnes & Noble opened in Eastchester last fall, in the long-vacant Borders space. This store is a prototype, Big Collapse style, that is being investigated as viable for more future locations. It’s 20% smaller than the average B&N, yet somehow seems to contain more worthwhile stock.

By no means am I advocating the frequenting of chain establishments over independent shops. But until Westchester has an independent bookstore that serves my needs and criteria, I will continue to be lured by anyone with sufficient offerings. And this B&N is more than an indifferent clone of another big box store. It’s run by the same manager from the old Eastchester Borders, and staff actually have a hand in the ordering. Perhaps this is why the checkout guy seemed genuinely pleased that I complimented their selection.

No indignation for the copious selection of Roth, which is located immediately above the Rushdie.

The store opened in November 2016, but we hadn’t made it there until this weekend. I haven’t had much time to shop in the last few months, and the combination of the Westchester Library System and New York Public Library fulfills most of my needs (shoutout to the DICKS at Mid-Manhattan for making me conceal my coffee on the regular, and the much nicer staff at Mount Vernon and Eastchester.) We ended up stopping by on Saturday, aka a day I had already visited three libraries (Bronxville, Scarsdale and New Rochelle). What can I say, I needed my Elif Batuman and Joan Juliet Buck from the New Books shelf at two different locations, and was unwilling to wait.

I was fully expecting to be underwhelmed by the new B&N, but instead was grudgingly impressed by their selection. Applying my usual metrics yielded the following report, in alphabetical order by author, and broken up like a Breakdown album title. I refuse to use “Brightside” and “Happy Hour”, as some did for their b9 reviews of Posi Numbers 2005:

Plus:
A bountiful Bukowski situation
Decent Chabon selection
Decent Graham Greene selection
Lucinda Rosenfeld – Class
Copious Philip Roth selection
My favorite Colm Toibin book (Brooklyn)

Minus:
No Marie-Helene Bertino
No Robertson Davies
The only Jennifer Egan item was A Visit from the Goon Squad
No Natasha Stagg – Surveys, but I wasn’t really expecting that.

“We both liked Carson McCullers.” Actually I forgot to check the Carson McCullers situation.

The presence of Class was particularly indicative of the quality available here. I first discovered Class from a powerHouse Books newsletter at work, so I was pleased to also find it at a more generic suburban purveyor. I might reside in my own literary bubble, enamored with the lesser Henry Wiggen books and other oft-overlooked non-classics, but Lucinda Rosenfeld only has 708 followers on Twitter and Liked my Stout-inflected tweet about Class, so I assume her work is still somewhat under the radar of the general buying public.

I ended up buying a paperback of City on Fire since I had been thinking of rereading it anyway and it’s a behemoth in hardback. Plus I know various friends and family members who might enjoy borrowing it. And $17 for a 944-page book seemed more justifiable than $16 for the slim but amusing Our Man in Havana.

I may be easy to disgust and hard to impress in various capacities, but will be back to support this prototype Barnes & Noble in the near future. That is, once all my library books are born to expire.

Eat Side Story: Interview with Freddy Alva

Talking vegetarian food with Freddy Alva, creator of the New Breed Compilation and New Breed Documentary, which is being screened at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers on October 16. More information is available at www.newbreeddocumentary.com.

Describe your eating habits, or those of anyone you worked with on the New Breed Documentary:

My eating habits fall along the Lacto-Vegetarian variety, meaning I do eat some dairy like cheese & milk but I stay away from meat, chicken & poultry.  I eat a lot of grains, pastas, legumes & also have a weak spot for “fake meat” products like Tofurky sausages/Soy chicken/Seitan meat etc. I would say the director & editor of the documentary are not vegetarians but do eat meat in a consciously healthy manner.

How did you decide to become a vegetarian, and what are some of your favorite veg spots in the city?

I became Vegetarian in the hopes of staving a long standing trend of heart disease that runs through my family so I wanted to avoid that fate or minimize it. I tried several times when I was a teenager to quit eating meat, will minimal success. It wasn’t until the summer of 1990, when I was 20 years old, that I came down with Chickenpox & was laid out for two weeks. This was the perfect opportunity to quit meat as I had no appetite whatsoever & it worked: been Vegetarian ever since. Only part that sucked is that Poison Idea played a legendary show at Abc No Rio that same week I was sick so I missed it, still bummed about that.

I love Indian food, especially South Indian vegetarian style so there’s places I like, for example: Seva in Astoria, Samudra in Jackson, Bhakti cafe in the East Village & the Ayurvedic cafe on the Upper West Side.

What is your favorite thing to eat in NYC? And what’s the best place to get Peruvian food?

My favorite thing to eat in NYC is Vegetarian fast food; stuff like Soy Seitan sandwiches, Veggie burgers, Soy chicken fingers… they can be found at places like Blossom Du Jour (6 locations), Superiority Burger. I also love getting in any Chinatown, whether it’s in Manhattan. Queens or Brooklyn: red bean buns or those Vietnamese Bahn mi sandwiches that have become so popular, Tofu version of course. As far as best Peruvian restaurants; you have to go to Queens. There are some great ones like Urubamba, La Coya or Chimu in Brooklyn. In a pinch, you can go to Mancora in the East Village, they make a great Tofu Saltado, which is a variation of a classic Peruvian dish.

What is the best thing you’ve ever eaten at a hardcore venue? And if someone was in town for the BNB Bowl, what is something you would tell them to eat that is in close proximity to Webster Hall?

Best things I remember from the past are: the Che Cafe in San Diego in 1991. I saw Infest/Born Against & others; the food was amazing at their cafe, still remember that. I also remember a Shelter show up the Anthrax in Connecticut, where the devotees brought tasty Indian veggie food to give away, that was great. Recently I went to This Is Hardcore fest in Philly & there was this amazing cart in the courtyard that made awesome Veggie Seitan & Tofu Bahn mi sandwiches. Anyone coming to BNB bowl, I would recommend Angelica’s kitchen about a block away. It’s the classic lower east side Vegetarian spot. There’s also a place right next to the Continental club, on 3rd Ave between St. Marks & 9th street, that makes these awesome “Korean Burritos” with meat or without. Of course there’s Supierority burger on St Marks, probably the best veggie burger in town at the moment.

What is the most notable thing you’ve seen someone eat on stage?

I remember Ralphie Boy (Disassociate singer) playing with Jesus Chrust at a show in a squat on the LES while munching on chicken wings & throwing the bones at the crowd. Another one is whenever Bugout Society played, they threw out White Castle burgers at the audience during their appropriately titled anthem ‘Castle Carnage’. Pretty sure I saw their singer, Charlie Boswell, munch on the burgers before flinging them at the crowd.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve eaten while traveling?

I’ll always remember traveling through Europe in the late 1990s while on a budget & getting a freshly baked baguette with cheese in Paris was immensely satisfying, practically lived on those. I’ll always remember this amazing concoction in Amsterdam called Vla. It was somewhere in between a milkshake & custard/flan, have never found it anywhere else. The best Indian food I ever ate was in Southall, London. Super spicy but completely worth it.

Have you ever been to Alamo Drafthouse, and if not, did you know they have an excellent veggie burger? Or if you’ve been, what would you advise people to order while attending New Breed Documentary screening on October 16?

I just peeped their menu & the veggie burger definitely looks like a winner. Also: their baked pretzels w/beer mustard, the omnivore pizza & tofu w/quinoa bowl all look good. I can’t forget the local ales they carry, love tasting regional beers. I have my eye on Doc’s pumpkin cider!

What is your favorite thing to cook at home right now?

This coming winter season I’m gonna make a lot of hearty vegetable soups. There’s  a cool Vegetarian cookbook that’s been sitting in my kitchen for the longest, about time I used it. Looking forward to doing some hearty lentil & minestrone soups, get a nice baguette & salad plus my favorite beverage: the perfect comfort food.

Anything else you’d like to add about the relationship between food and hardcore?

Food & hardcore seem like unlikely related subjects. At least that’s what I thought when I got into HC. It wasn’t until I met people like Adam from Life’s Blood & Dave Stein from Combined Effort Records, that my views on Vegetarianism were expanded as they were full on HC dudes that believed in the integration of both scenes; placing vegetarianism along political & ethical lines that complemented a hardcore & punk rock view of the world. My new breed co-creator, Chaka Malik, also influenced me big time. He was the first Vegan I ever met & once him & Absolution/Burn guitarist Gavin Van Vlack got a communal house together in Brooklyn; they would make these huge veggie feasts that convinced me vegetarian food can be tasty while being good for you. I owe it to friends like them from the hardcore scene for influencing this dietary choice I’ve been on for 26 years & counting.

It Looked Like For Ever: the End of the Road for Henry Wiggen and Alex Rodriguez

Some of you already know how much I love the Henry Wiggen books and have experienced my constant exhortations to read them. Mark Harris has written the best series of baseball fiction that I’ve ever encountered, and since I know many people who appreciate both baseball and fiction, I find it hard to believe that these books are not more appreciated among this particular subset of humans. They are truly the Dynamo or Show of Force of the sports fiction realm, except the material is more widely available. Sixty years after their publication, the storylines hold up well and the overall themes are still relevant. And all four novels are still in print via the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books.

In order to introduce more readers to the delights of Mount Vernon’s own Mark Harris, I had been thinking of doing a Henry Wiggen-specific blog, rather than a food blog, a book blog, or a combination of the two. Rest assured there will be much more Wiggen content in this particular outlet. But what finally provide the catalyst to write about Henry Wiggen was an unrelated world event, aka the unexpected forced retirement of Alex Rodriguez.

Last Saturday night, we heard that the Yankees had scheduled a press conference for the next morning regarding the fate of A-Rod. Multiple alarms and crazy dreams catapulted me awake in time to watch it live. When it was announced that he would be retiring in less than a week, then staying on with the Yankees as a special advisor, you could tell that he was trying to be gracious and diplomatic but was not thoroughly convinced his playing days were over. In the past week, after his last few games with the Yankees and official farewell on Friday, there have been rumors of him possibly catching on with another team (the Marlins?) in an attempt to make it to 700 home runs or beyond. No matter what you think about A-Rod, it is clear that he is a dude who loves baseball. And while his career was exceptional, his struggle is a common one, regarding players feeling they still have a little bit left, even if their teams and the general public do not concur.

Henry Wiggen experiences a similar scenario in the fourth and final Wiggen novel, It Looked Like For Ever. Published in 1979 but set in 1971, it was written long after the other three Wiggen tales that appeared in the mid 50’s (in order: The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, and A Ticket for a Seamstitch.) It Looked Like For Ever opens with the death of longstanding Mammoths manager Dutch Schnell and Henry’s subsequent speculation that he will become manager. Instead, upon returning home to Perkinsville after the funeral, he finds out he has been unceremoniously released by the club. Wiggen had been a star for 19 years, but in his fictional case there was no press conference, no speculation and no ceremony.

Like in Bang the Drum Slowly, the other best Wiggen story, For Ever opens with some wintertime travel, first to St. Louis for Dutch’s funeral and then to Japan in a short-lived exploration of continuing his career with the Oyasumi Cobras. Along the way, you are introduced to Henry and his tribulations as a “younger older person.” The 39 year old Wiggen has undergone a stunning transformation since we last saw him in 1956. Not only has he become the father of four daughters, but also a millionaire who has saved scrupulously and multiplied his earnings via savvy investments. Yet he also has prostate trouble and secret contact lenses (imagine the wearing of contacts being an issue in 2016!), and his younger daughter Hilary is distraught at the idea of never having seen him play baseball in the flesh. Her three older sisters have watched him pitch in assorted ballparks, but somehow she had never prioritized seeing him play until it was too late.

Henry vows to catch on with another team in order for Hilary to see him perform. This is the motivation that he repeats throughout the book as the reason behind his comeback: that he is desperate for his daughter to see him play. Though as he continues to pursue one avenue after another to get back onto a major league roster, it becomes clear that Henry himself believes he is still capable of playing baseball.  

I had always internally compared Henry Wiggen to Andy Pettitte, in that both were long-tenured left-handed aces and family men (though of course Henry was also a pacifist iconoclast and author, compared to the more conventional and religious Pettitte.) Pettitte himself returned to the Yankees in 2012 after leaving baseball in 2010. He was welcomed back with open arms and contributed significantly in his last two seasons. But Henry’s trajectory in For Ever reminded me of A-Rod’s plight in that he is not quite ready to end his career, and goes to great lengths to achieve that, from traveling to Japan to Washington to Tozerbury to California, and yet ultimately having things not quite turn out the way he expected.

itlookedlikeforeverAlex Rodriguez and the fictional Wiggen have a similar goal: to keep playing baseball the way they feel they are capable of, even if no one will offer them a roster spot. However, their other motivations and lives outside of baseball are vastly different. Alex lives and breathes baseball, and aside from his relationship with his daughters, it is the major component of his life. Henry has many interests outside the game, and his curiosity about the world sometimes hinders the perception of whether he is truly dedicated to his comeback. His fascination with Washington manager Ben Crowder’s food-warming dish and questions about Japanese cherry trees cause exasperation to flare at crucial moments while trying to convince those in power that he is still significantly motivated to play. Motivation is a major theme in this book: characters such as California owner Suicide Alexander openly question Henry’s motivation, as do other players and managers. No one seems to believe that someone with eclectic and refined interests like Henry can display the single-mindedness demanded by a comeback at 39.

The process of balancing Henry’s sense of self as a successful businessman and family man, author and baseball player, and his perception of himself vs. the perception that others have of him, are all essential components in the storyline. Aside from being a skillful southpaw, he’s primarily an outsider, author, skeptic, father and husband. He and Alex are each weirdos in their own way, but Henry’s attempt to juggle all of these elements while pursuing a comeback add both humor and gravity to his story.

Besides the baseball theme, my two favorite elements of Harris’s writing are his use of precise detail and sly humor. Unlike some books, where inaccuracies in plot points or timeline can send me stewing and eschewing the rest of a series, the Henry Wiggen books are painstakingly accurate in their representation of dates, places and characters. You can tell that Harris is a man of details in that he prints the entire 1955 roster in Bang the Drum Slowly (along with players’ full names, birthplaces and armed services records. The birthplaces alone were a dream to me in 1998, and immediately inspired me to take down our atlas and start crafting a fictitious roster of my own.) All of these details, regarding the 1971 circumstances of each beloved character, societal shifts and technological advances, help convincingly move the Wiggen storyline forward by a decade and a half.

A perfect example of the time shift between the last Wiggen book set in 1956, and this one in 1971, is Henry Wiggen owning a car phone. This solidifies his status as a rich man on the cutting edge of technology, and also provides assorted humorous scenarios. When he gets pulled over for driving too slowly, the cop is intrigued by his car phone and uses it to telephone his daughter in Yonkers, who reports she would be more impressed if he was speaking to young phenom Beansy Binz than Henry Wiggen. The car phone is also an essential plot device regarding his friendship with his future manager’s wife, Marva Sprat, and a source of fascination for other potential employers such as Ben Crowder. Call forwarding is also employed in a turning point in the storyline. The phone-related details are all the more enjoyable if you are familiar with the earlier books. Back in 1955 in Bang the Drum Slowly, eavesdropping by operator Tootsie provides a pipeline of essential information, for which Henry trades her two grandstand seats, “third base side, Author, lower deck, not too far back and not behind no pillars nor posts.”

Phones aside, Harris has a good eye for inserting details that reveal how American society has changed between 1956 and 1971 (especially with the additional eight years of perspective between setting the book in 1971 and publishing it in 1979.) Henry’s consternation regarding the casual dress of his young teammates, and slogan-emblazoned t-shirts in particular, culminates in him being presented a shirt bearing the slogan “Dirty Old Men Pitch Relief.” There are references to Wiggen’s hair hanging down his neck, expansion teams, night baseball, and his eldest daughter Michele being on a hijacked plane on her way to India. This potentially nightmarish scenario is mentioned in passing, but with a typically ridiculous Wiggen twist: he ended up negotiating with the hijackers by promising to teach them assorted pitching techniques. (No word on whether that would also work for a PR professional.) However, this may have resulted in his future prostate trouble, as he was unable to take a bathroom break while the ordeal unfolded. What makes all these anecdotes so enjoyable is that they are just side stories, for if they were essential components of the plot, they might be too cartoonish or unbelievable. Conversely, the plots of Harris’s stories are built on everyday human themes and events, making them just engaging enough to devour, yet realistic enough to believe.

The increased popularity of psychiatric treatment also plays a role in It Looked Like For Ever. In an effort to curb her screaming fits, Hilary Wiggen is in the care of Dr. Schiff, a Manhattan psychiatrist who “would be expensive to dress and cheap to feed,” in Henry’s observation, as she seems to subsist entirely on Coca-Cola. Dr. Schiff was recommended by Henry’s former teammate Ev McTaggart (who ended up as Mammoth manager after Dutch), whose own daughter required her services. Henry’s friend and broadcasting partner Suzanne Winograd and her daughter Bertilia are also patients. Dr. Schiff also provides the namesake for one of Hilary’s two horses, the other being Late Manager Dutch, purchased from “the horse lady of Tozerbury.”

It Looked Like For Ever is populated in part by Harris’s beloved cast of existing characters, from the Wiggen family to the Moors family establishment. However, many of the central figures in this fourth installment appear here for the first time. There are a number of new female characters, from Hilary to Dr. Schiff to Marva Sprat to Henry’s lawyer Barbara, and new baseball men, from Ben Crowder to Jack Sprat to Suicide Alexander. But they are all drawn in classic Harris style and carry the series forward authentically. In my own writing, I always worry about my characters having adequate motivation, but Harris has no similar issue, as motivation is a major topic in the book, in particular regarding Henry’s being questioned. It is perhaps a relic of the time that team executives would be so concerned regarding proper motivation of individual players, versus the present day when most organizations are desperate for capable left-handed relievers. (I am sure no one was questioning the motivation of Jesse Orosco when he was still pitching at age 46.) But due to a series of misunderstandings along with his own earnest actions, Henry’s motivation is deemed sufficient at last. “Any 39 year old millionaire that will steal 1/2 a bag of golf clubs off me at a dead man’s funeral is my kind of man.”

Most existing characters have ended up with fates appropriate or predictable in this last installment. I was only disappointed in the story of Perry Simpson, and that early characters such as Mike Mulrooney and Bradley Lord did not reappear in the 1971 World of Wiggen. The satisfying output that is It Looked Like For Ever is a marked contrast to The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies’s disappointing and almost unreadable conclusion to the Cornish trilogy, perhaps because there was never a set number of books planned in the Wiggen series. I will always be curious what compelled Harris to go back and produce one more, years after the others were completed (and conveniently, also after his own autobiography and Norman Lavers’s critical study covered them.) In Harris’s autobiography Best Father Ever Invented, he recounts an attempt in 1959 to write one more Wiggen book, set entirely during the seventh game of the World Series. But “I feel challenged to write ‘the great baseball novel.’ It died. A year later, I tried again, and again it died.” Twenty years later, what changed? Perhaps writing the script for the movie version of Bang the Drum Slowly, and envisioning Henry’s story in a modern world, compelled Harris to revisit these characters one last time.

One of the many reasons that It Looked Like For Ever may actually be the best Wiggen book is that its sense of humor is darker and more evolved than in prior stories. (Bang the Drum Slowly, in comparison, couldn’t feature too many jokes involving death due to Bruce Pearson being doomded [sic].) It Looked Like For Ever displays Harris’s ever-refined wit, and while there are many comical scenes, from Henry and Holly’s visit to the non-town of Oyasumi, to Henry’s shortlived broadcasting career, most of the best jokes involve some form of mortality. When the Wiggenses take Hilary to St. Louis for Dutch’s funeral and people ask her “and what are you going to get for Christmas, my little lady?”, she replies, “I am getting to see a dead man at last.” The scene at the Foucault Pendulum in San Francisco is another great example of Harris’s humor in that it is funny and deadly serious at the same time. From amidst the crowd waiting for the pendulum to knock down the pegs, Hilary leaps up and screams “You might be dead before you ever play baseball again,” causing a massive disturbance involving crying children and frantic museum guards, before becoming immediately ladylike, watching the pendulum knock down the peg, and sighing “at last.”

Along with liberal sprinkling of dark humor, Harris is a bit more plentiful with the Westchester references in this final Wiggen installment, probably due to the fact that Henry is spending much of his time at home while traveling back and forth to the city. He is pulled over on the Taconic, he drives on the Bronx River, and references passing through Port Chester and Mount Vernon. Port Chester is also fictionally represented as Henry’s hometown of Perkinsville, which, from its description, I would have originally surmised to be further up the line and a fictionalized version of something more like Poughkeepsie. But I guess in the fifties, Port Chester was more separated from the city, physically and culturally, than it is today. Coincidentally, I was obsessed with this series of books a full ten years before becoming a Mount Vernon resident (and discovering that Mark Harris hailed from Mount Vernon, but that is a story for another day.)

In this fourth and final installment, Wiggen is still a bit of an unreliable narrator and speaker of his own unique vernacular, despite his overall increased level of sophistication. He manages to spell the word souvenirs correctly once earlier in the book regarding Old Timers Day, but by the final page he is back to representing it more inventively. It is perfectly placed in a final sentence that appropriately ties up the mood of the series, in the last words ever written about Henry Wiggen by Mark Harris’s hand. Harris passed away in 2007, erasing the potential for additional Wiggen installments years after the fact, in the manner that got us It Looked Like For Ever. Though with Alex Rodriguez, we have no such equivalent finality, as there is still a chance that someone will sign him and further his quest for additional playing time and a shot at 700 home runs.

When my dad gave me the Henry Wiggen’s Books trilogy back in eighth grade (his edition predated It Looked Like For Ever), he said to start with Bang the Drum Slowly, then go back to The Southpaw, the first book in the series. This is still the order in which I instruct potential Wiggen acolytes to read the series: 2, 1, 3, 4. But if this too-long treatise on It Looked Like For Ever piques your interest and you must begin with the final Wiggen novel, I would still consider it a job well done, Run the Jewels style.