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THE IOWA BASEBALL CONFEDERACY by W. R. Kinsella (Houghton Miffin: $16.95; 310 pp.)

July 06, 1986|Roger Kahn | Kahn's most recent book is "Good Enough to Dream" (Doubleday), about a season in the life of a minor-league baseball team. and

The centerpiece in W. P. Kinsella's intriguing and sometimes perplexing new novel is a baseball game between the world champion Chicago Cubs and a band of amateur all-stars that begins either on July 4, 1908, or in a crack in time. The game lasts 2,614 innings and was scheduled as the start of an exhibition double-header. The 2,614-inning figure is correct. The second game of the double-header was canceled.

The cast numbers real characters from the old Cubs, including their so-called peerless leader, Frank Chance. President Theodore Roosevelt makes a cameo appearance and strikes out, waving a big stick. Leonardo da Vinci descends on the field, near the hamlet of Big Inning, Iowa, and reveals that it was he, not Abner Doubleday, who invented the game and sketched out the flawless dimensions of a baseball diamond. "Unfortunately," Leonardo says, "I lived in a nation of bocce players. It took 300 years for baseball to become popular. By that time, my name was no longer associated with it."

We also find a straw-haired time-traveling hero named Gideon Clarke, who has sexual difficulties with his wife in the approximate present but finds fulfillment in 1908 with a farm girl named Sarah Swan during night-time interruptions of the long game. A huge and mysterious Indian called Drifting Away is able to control some but not all of the events in Kinsella's story. A cemetery statue called the Black Angel of Death comes to life and covers right field pretty well, catching fly balls in her sculpted stone wings, without a glove. What we have here is something other than an avatar of neo-realism.

Kinsella writes well, often poetically, which at once distinguishes "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" from the glut of anecdote-filled ghosted baseball memoirs. We are reading a writer here, a real writer, muses be praised. But we are also adrift in a delicate world of fantasy, weird deaths and, I suppose, symbolism. Sometimes the work is confusing, as Kinsella adds a fantasy on top of an illusion beyond a mirage. But I never lost my wonder at how the ballgame would turn out; any author who can hold you for 2,614 innings deserves considerable praise.

Gideon Clarke of Onamata, Iowa, is obsessed with proving that the Cubs did travel to Iowa in 1908 and play a game against an all-star team from the Iowa Baseball Confederacy. No one else remembers the encounter because, his father says, "it is a fact that there are cracks in time." Essentially, the ballgame, and a flood that followed, have fallen into a mysterious crack.

"My father, Matthew," Gideon observes in a remarkable passage, "dreamed his wife. He lay in his bedroom in the square frame house with green shutters in the Iowa town called Onamata, which, long ago, before the flood, when everything but the church was washed away in the direction of Missouri, was called Big Inning. Wide awake, eyes pressed shut, Matthew Clarke dreamed his ideal woman, conjured her up from the scarlet blackness beneath his lids until she rose before him like a genie, wavery, pulsating."

Hollyhocks sing, and Matthew sets out to convince the world that the long game actually was played. Only his son, Gideon, believes him, and Matthew commits suicide at County Stadium in Milwaukee by keeping his head in the path of a wicked foul line drive.

With that death, all the knowledge of the game materializes in the brain of young Gideon. Old newspapers show no records. Baseball officials deny that there was a game. But, on a soft summer night, Gideon finds his crack in time, and there they are, Iowa stars from Shoo Fly, Husk and Frank Pierce, players named Henry Pulvermacher and Arsenic O'Reilly. Soon the Cubs arrive with Chance, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and the great pitcher, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.

Gideon wonders about remaining in the world of 1908, wishes he knew electronics so he could invent television. You wonder whether he will stay and how and if the game will end as Kinsella's work proceeds to phantasmagoria.

Except for an occasional excess, I found "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" fun and lyric and poignant. A febrile imagination has had a field day, 2,614 innings long.

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