Volume 76, Number 1 | June 6 - 12, 2007

Notebook

What is left? A book that I can never stop reading

By Jerry Tallmer

There are certain lines of poetry or prose that stick in your head through the whole lifetime since you first came upon them — or they upon you. One is a young woman named Holly saying to her husband: “Then you have to go,” meaning you have to go see Bruce if he’s in the hospital somewhere and needs you. That is followed a few pages later by Holly’s husband, Henry Wiggen, ace pitcher of the New York Mammoths, telling us: “She always liked him. She always said: ‘Add up the number of things about him that you hate and despise, and what is left? Bruce is left.’ ”

Bruce is Bruce Pearson, a slow-thinking Georgia-bred (and Georgia prejudiced) third-string catcher for the Mammoths. Because Henry Wiggen not only wins ballgames but also writes books, his nickname throughout baseball is “Author.” Except to Bruce, who has long since wrestled that into “Arthur.” When Wiggen reaches the medical center up in Minnesota where Bruce has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, he goes blank on hearing the word fatal. “It means I am doomeded,” Bruce tells Arthur, who will presently force a contract on the Mammoths inexplicably tying Bruce’s tenure to his own. Two hundred richly human, funny, wrenching pages later, a guitar-strumming motorcycle-happy ballplayer named Piney Woods starts singing:
 
O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the dead march as they carry me on …
 
… and we are one with Henry Wiggen and Holly Wiggen in taking a body blow for those who have been kissed by death too young.

September 1, 2006
Dear Mark Harris:


Fifty years ago I read a book that broke me up, and I wrote about it in The Village Voice, a newspaper that I and some other people had started in the fall of 1955, a few months before that book came out. I must have reread “Bang the Drum Slowly” once or twice since then, and now, 50 years after that first reading, I am reading it again. I do this mostly on buses and subways, to and from the offices of The Villager (not The Village Voice), where I’ve been based the past five or six years. I read a page here, two pages there, three pages the next trip, etc., and now, 50 years later, it still breaks me into little pieces (the way the first-rate movie did not). I mean a grown man of more years than I wish to enumerate should not have to fight back tears every third day or so on a public bus, but there it is. Just yesterday, I finally reached the Cowboy song, even before I knew I’d come to it, and even before I knew it I was lost and gone again. This, mind you, in the year the New York Mets are fielding what may be the best team in their history, with kids like José Reyes and David Wright not knowing what death is all about.
 So anyway, I thank you. I just thought you might like to know. Sincerely,
 
Jerry Tallmer

Thus did I write to Mark Harris nine months ago, sending it off to the only address I knew, the University of Nebraska Press, publishers of a 1984 paperback edition of “Bang the Drum Slowly.” Several weeks later, I received a very gracious letter from his wife, Josephine Horen Harris, thanking me for the above words, but saying her husband was too far gone in Alzheimer’s to understand any of it.

That was that until this past Saturday afternoon, when, during the Mets game on the radio — they won — I turned to The New York Times obit page and got socked by the news that Mark Harris, age 84, had died of complications from Alzheimer’s, at a hospital in Santa Clara, California, on Wednesday, May 30, 2007.

What is left? “Bang the Drum Slowly” is left, and Henry Wiggen, and Holly Wiggen, and Bruce Pearson, and Mark Harris too.


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