Each spring, when baseball’s opening day is on the horizon, I once again read a slim novella with the picture of a baseball player staring upward on it. The novella is Pafko at the Wall and the author is Don DeLillo.
I’ve never been a big Don DeLillo fan which always kind of puzzled me. He’s a fine writer, with a sometimes non-linear style, who takes on big subjects with big characters involved in the storylines. As I’m writing this I’m thinking I should probably take another stab at DeLillo’s works.
Even though I wasn’t a big fan, I came across a copy of Underworld at my local library not long after it came out in the late 90’s and I was sure I’d finally found a DeLillo book I could sink my fangs into. As it turned out, I sank my fangs into the prologue but I couldn’t get past the first two chapters of the rest of the book.
A few years after my first encounter with DeLillo’s wonderful litte story about the final game of the 1951 National League Pennant, I happened upon Pafko at the Wall, a novella by Don DeLillo. I realized from the first sentence I’d found DeLillo’s homage to baseball that was originally the prologue I’d read a few years before and that it would become one of my favorite books.
DeLillo puts us right inside the Polo Grounds on that windy October day in New York and allows us to eavesdrop on some famous spectators in the stands including, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover. DeLillo’s Falstaffian depiction of Gleason is just spot on. The hefty comedian banters with Sinatra and anyone else within earshot as he stuffs all the hot dogs and beer he can find down his craw until he eventually throws up due to a combination of overindulging and worry about his new show that’s about to debut. We’re also reminded of the Cold War era when Hoover gets word, at the game, that the Soviet Union has the bomb.
We also get to go inside the mind of the raw-throated Gill Hodges as he call the game that culminates in his iconic “The Giants Win the Pennant” yell after Bobby Thomson hit the “shot heard round the world” that got the Giants into the ’51 World Series against Casey Stengel’s Yankees. Today’s subway series just don’t have the same heft as the ones New Yorker’s reveled in back in a different time and an America who had come through some very hard times.