‘Shoeless Joe’ author W.P. Kinsella dies at 81

W.P. Kinsella
AP Images

I pulled Shoeless Joe off my bookshelf last night. It’s a cheap paperback I carried with me when I moved from Seattle to San Francisco, one corner crumbling, a stranger’s name etched in blue ink on the inside cover. The faint pencil marking above the first of many sponsored accolades says that I purchased the novel for two dollars, which, when I picture the mom-and-pop bookshop I used to frequent in my hometown, feels about right.

There are books you devour and then there are books you savor. This is the latter. Like its more famous film adaptation, Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe is a story to sink into, one that reflects the marriage of baseball with our constant grasping for some scrap of childhood nostalgia, some piece of the past, some fulfillment of our desire to see the underdog vindicated, if only as a spectre in an Iowan cornfield.

It probably comes as little surprise that Field of Dreams quickly climbed the ranks of my favorite baseball films when I first got into the sport, too, but there’s something about its source material that speaks to me on a deeper level. Perhaps it’s in the way Ray Kinsella doggedly pursues other ballplayers and fans, including a reclusive J.D. Salinger, desperate to help them realize their dreams of experiencing the game one last time. Perhaps it’s in the way Eddie Scissons preaches the word of baseball, holding church on the left field bleachers of Ray’s field — “looking,” Kinsella writes, “for all the world like an Old Testament prophet on the side of a mountain.” Here, among dead ballplayers and living ballplayers and feverish fans and acres of corn, baseball manages to transcend its ninth-inning narratives and pennant chases, becoming something sacred and timeless.

I’m burying the lede here for the same reason that I can’t bring myself to finish the last chapter of Shoeless Joe: I don’t want W.P. Kinsella’s story to end. The Canadian author passed away on September 16 at age 81. According to a brief statement made by his literary agent, Carolyn Swayze, Kinsella’s death was doctor-assisted. No other details surrounding the author’s passing have surfaced, save that he was in the company of his loved ones.

After debuting Shoeless Joe in 1982, Kinsella penned nineteen short story collections, a book of poetry, and six more novels, including five full-length works that similarly intersected the realms of baseball and magic realism. Kinsella’s career was derailed in 1997 when he suffered a head injury during a brutal car accident, but he recovered to finish four more works between 2000 and 2011. His last published novel, Butterfly Winter, is not set in Iowa, but in the balmy climes of a fictitious Latin American country called Courteguay, where twin brothers play catch in the womb and struggle to find a path to American baseball under the guidance of a mysterious and vindictive Wizard.

Shoeless Joe ends, as does Kinsella’s own story, with a bittersweet departure. Unlike that of Field of Dreams, where shadowy ballplayers retreat to an alternate dimension by vanishing into the cornfield, the novel’s enchanted ball field features a magic gate that transports the apparitions out of Ray’s backyard. While Ray wants more than anything to be invited through the portal with Shoeless Joe Jackson and Moonlight Graham, J.D. Salinger is the first to receive an invitation, presumably to fulfill his lifelong wish of playing at the Polo Grounds.

It’s a tough moment for our hero, who razed his crops and survived threats against his farm and traveled the country to collect forgotten players and fans, only to be passed over by his idols in the end. When he lets Salinger go, after ensuring the novelist will immortalize his experiences on paper someday, the goodbye feels permanent. Perhaps it’s not, at least for our hero, but the reader is left with Ray on the wrong side of the field as Salinger disappears on the last page. We, too, are left watching the gate while Kinsella passes through, and for the time being, the silver bird beak is immovably wedged in the lock behind him.

This is where I remember Kinsella’s words best:

Within the baselines anything can happen. Tides can reverse; oceans can open. That’s why they say, ‘The game is never over until the last man is out.’ Colors can change, lives can alter, anything is possible in this gentle, flawless, loving game.