The twin peaks of my reading this year was a pair outstanding novels written by colleagues of mine here at The Millions. Edan Lepucki’s debut, California, reached #3 on The New York Times bestseller list, while Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Both books thoroughly deserve their critical and commercial success, and for all their many differences of tone and approach, their DNA shares a prominent strand: both novels are set in a dystopian near future, after civilization has collapsed and people are forced to scratch and improvise their way to lives with some semblance of security and meaning. The books’ shared tones and time frames led me to write an essay about the timeless – and timely – allure of the near future for writers working in our anxious times.
Too late to include in that essay, is another dystopian near-future novel I just finished reading by another “literary” novelist, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. (I think the word literary needs to be placed between quotation marks in this context because it’s a contrivance, though in this case a useful contrivance: it notes that realists like Lee — and Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, and Cormac McCarthy — have been venturing into speculative new terrain that was once the preserve of genre writers.) Full Sea posits a nuanced dystopia: pollution and economic collapse have caused mass migrations of Chinese people into abandoned American cities, and a three-tiered society evolves. On the top are the wealthy, living in gated communities; in the middle are the working-class residents of strictly regulated cities like B-Mor, formerly Baltimore; and on the bottom are the poor people living in the brutal rural “counties.” The novel gets draggy and ponderous in spots, but its great strength is the first-person plural narration by the “we” of B-Mor, a hive mind that gives the novel creepy, mythic overtones.
While in Detroit on a book tour this summer, I bumped into a writer named Dan Epstein who was in town promoting his two irresistible books about baseball during that most benighted of decades, the 1970s — Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s and Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.
Before encountering Epstein and his books, I had dismissed the ’70s as a stylistic Sargasso when almost everything went to hell — cars, pop music, the economy, hairstyles, fashions and, yes, baseball, which was suddenly being played on AstroTurf fields in cookie-cutter stadiums by whiskery guys wearing Technicolor polyester uniforms. (Movies, curiously, were immune from the scourge, enjoying a fleeting golden age during the decade). Epstein, as I discovered, actually revels in the decade’s cheesiness, and he does so without the killing smirk of irony. And, he reminded me, it wasn’t all cheese: it was when he fell in love with punk rock, soul, funk, and blaxploitation flicks. For the first time, as he writes, the real world invaded a professional sport: “Drugs, fashion, pop music, political upheaval, Black Power, the sexual revolution, gay revolution — all of these things left their mark upon ’70s baseball in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, and might be just as unthinkable now.” Indeed, Epstein’s books helped me see that before the 1970s, professional athletes were cocooned in the myth that they were wholesome superheroes; since then they’ve become cocooned in something even less interesting: money.
Speaking of Detroit, one of the best books I read this year was a scintillating new collection of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, essays, and fictionalized observations called A Detroit Anthology. Delightfully free of finger-pointing, cheap nostalgia, or breathless boosterism, the book makes the point that only through an understanding of this troubled city’s history can one hope to understand its current woes and its possible ways forward. The collection’s editor, Anna Clark, has succeeded sublimely in her goal of capturing “the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters.”
This will also go down as the year I read my first — and last — James Patterson novel, Pop Goes the Weasel. As Flannery O’Connor’s character Nelson Head says after his disastrous first trip from his home in the piney woods of Georgia to the big city of Atlanta: “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”
This will also go down as the year when I, a person who doesn’t like to rush into things, became the last person in America to read Gillian Flynn’s 2012 smash, Gone Girl. How good was it? It was so good I have absolutely zero desire to spoil the experience by going to see the movie version, even though Flynn wrote the screenplay. Sometimes, a book is enough.
And finally, two pieces of long-form journalism stood out this year. Thanks to The Daily Beast, I discovered the great Gay Talese’s 1970 Esquire magazine article about the Manson Family’s desert hideout at the Spahn Ranch. Though nearly half a century old, the writing in “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range” remains fresh and vibrant — a reminder just how radical it was for Talese to use the novelist’s tools in his journalism, and just what a brilliant reporter he was, and is. At age 82, he’s still working the beat.
Every year I re-read one of my favorite pieces of journalism, Marshall Frady’s 1971 Life magazine article, “The Judgment of Jesse Hill Ford.” Ford’s best-known novel, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, told the story of the titular black undertaker in a small Southern town in the 1960s, who has the temerity to name a white cop as a co-defendant in his divorce suit. The cop performs the inevitable execution of Jones, and the local white community comes together to protect and absolve him. Frady’s article lays out the horrific story of how Ford’s life came to imitate his art. The liberal undertones of Ford’s novel won him few friends among his white neighbors in Humboldt, Tenn., so there was a pronounced shiver of schadenfreude when Ford was charged with killing a black man who was trespassing on his property. Frady’s article dissects Ford’s tortured campaign to win back the favor of the white community, in order to win absolution and avoid prison. The article rises to the level of art through insights like this:
Like most who are authentically taken up into the obsession of writing, Ford belonged, more or less, to the Dionysian disposition, a nature tending toward the unruly and ecstatic…Ford worked out of an older understanding of man — that primitive, profoundly reactionary, pagan vision in which virtually all true story-tellers have probably been working since Homer, which has evolved not an inch since Ecclesiastes: that the race is basically unimprovable, and its condition an inalterable mixture of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion. Ford himself once remarked, ‘I’ve been invited to sessions before to discuss biracial committees and all those other causes, yeah. But I’ve never gone. I’d just rather not hear them mewl and whine.’
Journalism by the likes of Frady and Talese is getting harder and harder to find. As I was reminded again this year, digging it out is always worth the effort.
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You meet the strangest people on a book tour. One of the strangest – in the good sense – that I’ve met so far on my current tour was standing in a crowded Detroit bar sporting a 1970s Detroit Tigers jersey, a pair of bushy muttonchops and a cumulus cloud of curly hair that made him look like the drummer in a heavy metal band. I recognized the guy instantly. Our pictures were side-by-side in the front window of Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, where we had just given readings from our new books on successive nights.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Dan Epstein?”
“That’s me,” he said, smiling as he shook my hand. “And you’re Bill!”
I admitted I was, and a writerly friendship was born. We had come to this saloon, Nemo’s, on the thinnest of literary pretenses. The occasion was the annual “Bird Bash,” a loopy celebration of one of the loopiest players ever to wear a Detroit Tigers uniform, Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, whose star blazed brightly but briefly in the summer of 1976, when he was the American League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star game, won Rookie of the Year honors, and captured the hearts of baseball fans across the nation with antics that included talking to baseballs, getting down on his hands and knees to smooth the pitcher’s mound, and returning a ball to the umpire if he sensed “it had a hit in it.” He got his nickname because his gangly physique and mop of fizzy hair reminded people of Big Bird on “Sesame Street.”
Epstein and I were supposed to read from our books during the “Bird Bash” because both books have strong ties to Detroit and the Tigers. Epstein’s Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, includes a loving portrait of Fidrych’s remarkable rookie season; and my novel, Motor City Burning, opens at Tiger Stadium on the Opening Day of the 1968 season and, with flashbacks to the previous summer’s riot, follows the team’s progress to their victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the ’68 World Series. Beyond all that, Epstein and I attended our first big-league ballgames at Tiger Stadium (mine was at age 9 in 1961, his was at age 10 in 1976), and we both remain fans of the team to this day.
But the mob at Nemo’s wasn’t thinking about our books. After watching a videotape of Fidrych’s breakout victory over the Yankees on a “Monday Night Baseball” broadcast from 1976, the crowd trooped one block to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where Tiger Stadium stood until its demolition in 2009, and where volunteers called the Navin Field Grounds Crew still tend the hallowed ballfield. After watching a guy re-enact some of the Bird’s antics, we all went back to Nemo’s to drink more beer and listen to a DJ spin “The Bird Is the Word,” some Stevie Wonder, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Kiss’s “Detroit Rock City.”
As the beer and music kicked in, it became apparent to Epstein and me that reading from our books would be pointless, so we struck up a conversation that’s still going on weeks later by telephone. After reading both of his fine books – the first one is called Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s – I told Epstein his writing had helped bring about a seismic shift in my thinking. During the 1970s, when I was getting started as a professional writer, I tuned out all the cheesy pop culture of an era I regarded as a stylistic Sargasso – disco music, hideous cars, atrocious fashions and hairstyles and, yes, baseball played on AstroTurf by guys in gaudy polyester uniforms. In Epstein I discovered a smart writer who actually reveled in the cheesiness of the ‘70s. And he did it without the killing smirk of irony.
Baseball in the ‘70s, as he wrote in Big Hair, “exuded an edgy (and palpably exciting) anything-goes vibe, one that has long vanished from the game as we know it. In recent years, for example, the Atlanta Braves have held a ‘Faith Day’ promotion, featuring performances by Christian rock bands and testimonials from Braves players about how Jesus turned their lives around. This is the same team that, back in 1977, drew more than 27,000 fans for a ‘Wet T-Shirt Night’ competition. Give me the 1970s, any day.”
Epstein’s books also make the valid point that prior to the 1970s, baseball players and other professional athletes lived in their own cocoon, insulated from the concerns of the rest of American society. (It could be argued that they’ve returned to the cocoon.) But in 1970 the cocoon started unraveling. Jim Bouton published Ball Four, which dared to point out that baseball players were not the clean-cut, clean-living heroes of popular myth but, as often as not, a gaggle of skirt-chasing boozers and pill-popping reprobates. That same year, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter while zonked on LSD. The fun was just beginning.
And there’s fun on every page of Epstein’s two books. One pitcher’s anemic fastball “wouldn’t have cracked the bubble window of an AMC Pacer.” The perms worn by numerous players “made them look like high school math teachers who hoped to get lucky at the local disco during the upcoming weekend.” And Peter Frampton’s live album from 1976 “oozed ingratiatingly mellow vibes across its four sides, making it the aural equivalent of a Maui Wowie-enhanced cruise along the California coastline in a Camaro.” The man can write.
As Epstein puts it, “Drugs, fashion, pop music, political upheaval, Black Power, the sexual revolution, gay revolution – all of these things left their mark upon ‘70s baseball in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, and might be just as unthinkable now.”
This is where our books overlap. Big Hair and Motor City Burning both use baseball as a mirror of current events. Epstein, who has written extensively about music, is a rigorous researcher. Here is his take on the 1967 riot that’s at the center of my novel, an event he uses to illustrate how pre-‘70s baseball players were out of touch with what was happening in the streets outside of major-league ballparks:
In his book, The Tigers of ’68, George Cantor acknowledges this complete disconnect, citing as an example the July 23, 1967 doubleheader between the Yankees and Tigers at Tiger Stadium, which the teams played to completion while the deadliest, most destructive riot of the 1960s raged in the surrounding streets. “It was as if the stadium was wrapped in a cocoon,” Cantor writes, “untouched by the catastrophe that was engulfing the city.” He goes on to note that the era’s “Vietnam protests and rallies, love-ins and acid trips were part of a parallel reality, one that did not intrude on baseball’s space.” In the 1970s, that cocoon would pop, and those two parallel realities would collide head-on, resulting in the most colorful era in baseball history.
Well, yes and no. One thing Epstein fails to mention about that July 23, 1967 doubleheader is that after the second game, the Tigers’ popular black slugger and Detroit native Willie Horton, still wearing his uniform, went out into the city’s chaotic streets and begged the rioters to go home. He was heckled and pelted with debris, and the city of Detroit continued to burn.
But Horton’s futile heroics were the exception that proved Cantor’s rule. And Epstein’s point about ‘70s baseball is valid – for better and for worse, it was the most colorful era in baseball history, with its Technicolor polyester uniforms, AstroTurf in ashtray stadiums, free agency, the designated hitter, night-time World Series games, women sportswriters in the locker room, long hair, and mustaches and muttonchops, goofy promotions and goofy players like the Bird, on-the-field brawls and off-the-field shenanigans.
As we stood there in Nemo’s, I remarked to Epstein that K.C. and the Sunshine Band sound a lot better to me today than they did 40 years ago. When the DJ played “Show Me the Way,” I added that Peter Frampton still sucks as bad as he sucked in 1976.
Epstein laughed. “Growing up in the ‘70s, I loved the pop music and the disco and the movies,” he said. “For a 10-year-old kid, Boston’s first album was a magic box. It just made me happy. And listen to a Chic record today – and realize they did it without synthesizers! Eventually I got into soul and funk and Blaxploitation flicks. The reason I wanted to write Big Hair was because it was the era when I fell in love with the game. Then, in the process of researching the era, I fell in love with the era too. But I also have the sense, from the drugs and the war protests and the political scandals, that those were fucked-up times.”
Which goes a long way toward explaining why they’re suddenly becoming so interesting to me.
With his six months of book promotions winding to a close, Epstein and his wife, Katie Howerton, were getting ready to return to their home in Los Angeles. I asked him the question every writer dreads: “So what are you working on next?”
“If I do another book about ‘70s baseball, I’ll be the ‘70s baseball guy forever,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but maybe I should expand. The logical thing would be to write about the ‘80s. But what’s there to write about other than Ronald Reagan, Madonna, crack cocaine and The Wave? I get the hives just thinking about it.”
Whatever he decides to write, I hope he gets busy. I’ll buy any book with Dan Epstein’s name on the cover.