Our pal Josh Wilker on Larvell Blanks.
The Cardboard God of Hellfire, our man Josh Wilker, has a new book out. I recently had a chance to ask him a few questions about it.
Bronx Banter: How did this project come about?
Josh Wilker: I guess the series editor, Sean Howe, is a fan of my blog. He contacted me to see if I had any interest in working on something for the series. I wrote him back an email listing several of my favorite movies, including “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.” Sean liked the idea of me writing about Breaking Training rather than any others on the list, and I was into it, too. (I also would have gotten excited about writing about “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” but it’s probably better for my mental health that I focused for a long while on Tanner and Kelly and Ogilvie rather than Warren Oates and a severed head.)
BB: How long is the book–it’s really a long essay, right?
JW: Yeah, it’s not that long, maybe a little over a hundred pages. I just checked the Word doc I sent the editor—it’s about 30,000. It’s got chapters though, which is kind of book-like. I think the idea was for the books in the series to be similar to those in the 33 1/3 books on albums.
BB: I love that this is a pocket paperback. When I got it the first thing I did was see if it fit in my back pocket. There is something so comforting about that.
JW: Right, all books should be that way. Nothing better than heading out the door and not having to carry anything and still have something to read on the train.
BB: What was the first baseball movie you saw as a kid?
JW: “Breaking Training” was probably the first. I’d read a lot of baseball books by the time I saw that movie, but I don’t think I saw any other movies. I guess the first time I saw any sort of fictional baseball on the screen was when Bugs Bunny took on the Balboniesque sluggers on the Gashouse Gorillas.
BB: Why did you chose it over the original “Bad News Bears”?
JW: Probably because I suck. There are lots of other reasons, too, among them that the second movie had a much stronger personal connection to me, and felt more like my own flawed little love rather than a generally acknowledged classic, and also that the second movie seemed to me to have much more potential as a jumping off point to talk about a lot of facets of American culture that fascinate and/or nauseate me, such as the central American myth of the road narrative, the changing ways in which children are raised in America, the malignancy of sequels, the “man alone” myth, etc. But above all that, if I’m being truthful, I don’t see myself as worthy of tackling something canonical. I’m too flawed to be some learned authority shedding light on “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather.” I relate to the lesser sequel, even love it, and wanted to sing its praises. Maybe it’s kind of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree kind of thing.
BB: When did you see the original?
JW: Unlike my first viewing of “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” which I remember vividly, I don’t remember when or where I saw “The Bad News Bears.” In line with a life that has often felt like an aftermath, like I arrive everywhere just after the things that mattered occurred, I saw the sequel first, and it was years before I saw the original. I probably saw it in my twenties, during which I spent a lot of time catching up on all the classic movies from the 1970s. If I were a couple years older, I probably would have seen it in the theater when it came out, and I’d surely have a different relationship to the two films.
BB: What did you think of “The Bad News Bears” when you finally saw it?
JW: It’s a fantastic movie, one of the last great films of the gritty late 1960s to mid-1970s golden age. I don’t recall my first time watching it, as I’ve said, but I’ve watched it many times since then—as with Breaking Training, I own the DVD. Matthau is of course brilliant, and I also like the occasional long reaction shots some of the Bears get to have, those long wordless shots that you don’t see anymore in movies (and which were gone even by the time of the sequel two years later). Jimmy Feldman gets one of these, as does Rudi Stein, in both cases showing a heart-wrenching human kid reaction to Buttermaker getting caught up in a win at all costs mentality. Both of these characters are marginal, so the fact that they each get to have one of these moments lends a sense to the movie that everyone is worth something.
BB: Where did you see “Breaking Training?”
JW: I saw it at the Playhouse Theater in Randolph, Vermont. In piecing together my personal experience of the summer of 1977, I came to the conclusion that my brother and I would have seen the movie during our yearly two-week summer visit to see our dad in Manhattan, but we lost a couple of movie-going days due to the blackout. It was god to see it back home, because I saw it in a theater packed with all the kids I played little league with, which could not have been a more receptive audience. It’s the most alive, enthusiastic movie audience I’ve ever been a part of.
Good times over at Pitchers and Poets where they are hosting a 1990s First Basemen Week:
I wrote a brief memory of Kevin Maas.
Missed it by that much…
Our good pal Josh Wilker is interviewed in the New Yorker’s book blog:
At one point in the book, you write, “I have spent most of my adult life imagining and reimagining the past and now I never know beyond a shadow of a doubt what actually happened.” Could you elaborate a little on that? Did that make it easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods”?
I’ve written incessantly about the past for over two decades in any form I could manage—in notebook rantings, in poems, in letters, in essays, most recently in blog posts, and most extensively in fictional form. I am trying to get at certain emotional truths, I guess, and after a while any certainty I once had about how things actually occurred eroded. One thing I do remember for sure is that when I was a kid, I made a vow to myself to remember everything. But in trying to keep this vow I actually broke it, going over the same ground again and again until the ground had changed. It didn’t make it any easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods.” The challenge of the writing of the book was the same challenge I’d always faced, which was to try to get the thing to feel true. I wanted the details to be honest, as honest as I could manage, and I certainly didn’t fabricate anything that I know didn’t happen, if that makes any sense, but I know my memory is faulty and that it long ago became subservient to my ruinous and sustaining need to narrate.
Over at Cardboard Gods, our pal Josh Wilker previews the 2011 Yanks by harkening back to the good ol’ days:
In the Yankees’ 1970s dynasty, the most visible figure and self-appointed leader was Reggie Jackson, and the actual team leader was Thurman Munson, but Lou Piniella was, at least to me, the definitive Yankee. Consider his game-saving play in the bottom of the ninth of the one-game playoff in 1978. After a one-out single by Rick Burleson, Jerry Remy hit a fly to right that Piniella lost in the sun. Instead of panicking, he pretended that he was preparing to make a routine, nonchalant catch, then when the ball came down in front of him, he happened to be close enough to it to stick out his glove and snare it on one bounce. Burleson, fooled along with everyone into thinking that Piniella would make easy work of Remy’s fly ball, had stayed close to first and was only able to make it to second base, unable to score on the long fly out produced by the following batter, Jim Rice. The Bucky Dent home run from earlier in the game has always gotten far more attention as the pivotal moment in the game, but Piniella’s play was vital, too, and was more representative of the Yankees for its infuriating combination of smarts, skill, guts, and good luck (Dent’s improbable gust-lifted pop-up leaning much more heavily on the last of those elements).
How, sweet it was.
The other night ESPN Classic replayed the game that got Rivers and the Yankees to the first of the three straight World Series: the fifth game of the 1976 American League championship series with the Royals. Before the famed riot-sparking home run by Chris Chambliss in the bottom of the ninth, Rivers keyed an early rally by slapping a base hit into centerfield. I’d forgotten how unusual Rivers looked and moved.
“What’s wrong with him?” my wife asked.
We were watching him strut-limp back to first after rounding the bag. He seemed like he’d been assembled in a rush from spare parts, long bow legs springing from a tiny torso, a weird jaunty lean to his body, as if he was suffering from a running cramp. His mouth was motoring.
“He’s a character,” was all I could say to my wife by way of explanation.
Even by his own high standards, Josh Wilker’s piece on meeting Bill Lee stands out. He kilt it, as they like to say.
I’ve been having trouble writing since I got back from my book tour through the Northeast, possibly because the foundation of my writing has always been whining and complaining, and what’s left to whine and complain about if you get to meet Bill Lee at the Red Sox Team Store right outside Fenway on Yawkey Way?
…I could have talked baseball with him all night, but he was of course besieged by fans. I noticed that he always asked each person where they were from, and wherever it was, he had been there and had a story to tell about it, a way of connecting. Everyone walked away smiling.
When the signing was over, we watched an inning of the game on a television in the store. Bill didn’t want to go across the street to the game because he’d be mobbed.
“When I go I make sure to always have a cup of beer in both hands so people can’t ask me to sign stuff,” he said, “but then people just buy me more and more beer and I end up getting hammered.”
Every so often, you run into a kindred spirit, a guy you aren’t envious of, just proud to know. Todd Drew was like that, and so is Josh Wilker (pictured above on the left with his brother Ian). When I first read Josh’s work at Cardboard Gods, I was thrilled. He had a strong voice, wonderful sensitivity, an unassuming sense of humor, and the courage to dig deep, way below the surface. I’d want to belong to the kind of club that would have a misfit like that as a member. And I’m not alone. Josh’s long-awaited memoir, The Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, has generated some great buzz and strong reviews. Josh hits the Big Apple tonight–he’ll be at the Nike Store in Soho from 7:30 to 9:30. He’s here through early next week and we’re happy to have him.
I got a chance to chat with Josh recently and here is our conversation. Enjoy.
Bronx Banter: Dude, first thing, what were your favorite kinds of packs to get when you were a kid? The single pack? Remember those triple packs that would be clear packaging with three little sets side-by-side?
Josh Wilker: I’m a single wax pack guy. The clear packaging ruined some essential part of the fun for me, since you could see the top and the bottom card in the stack. It was better that it was a total mystery.
BB: Bro, how deep does your nerdiness run? Do you carry a card around with you in your wallet?
JW: I don’t, but I usually have a card that I’m working up an essay on in the pocket of the nap sack that I lug to and from work. And a couple summers ago when I came to New York to–among other things–go to Shea Stadium for the last time, I made a point of carrying an Ed Kranepool in my pocket every day of the trip.
BB: Nice. Do you ever feel any attraction to modern baseball cards?
JW: I just wrote a piece for GQ.com, of all places, considering my unstudliness, on the 2010 Topps cards. I bought a couple packs for the piece, and got a charge out of it, and though the cards mostly left me cold for being too slick, I admired the high quality of them. The photos and the back of the card text is light years advanced beyond the rudimentary nature of the 1970s cards, which may be why the new cards leave me cold. There’s no homely humanity in them.
BB: Can you at all relate to the generation of kids who bought cards for what they might be worth one day, instead of being important for more personal reasons, or just cause they were the things to have, trade and flip?
JW: I can relate, I guess. I mean, when I was a kid, I fantasized that one day my Butch Hobson and Frank Tanana cards would be worth millions, so it’s not like the idea of the cards being “investments” was completely foreign to me. I was just too lazy to actually pursue that angle. I did feel like things were taking a wrong turn when I noticed, in the late 1980s, that the cards my younger cousin was collecting were going immediately into protective plastic. You have to be able to touch the cards, otherwise what’s the point?
BB: When you started the Cardboard Gods blog did you have it in your mind to write a book? Or did that develop later?
JW: My first intention was to play around and to keep writing and to maybe connect with some readers. I’d been working on a novel for several years previous to starting the blog, and I wasn’t able to sell it, and I was wary of signing on for another several years of solitary toil only to have the end product of the work end up at the bottom of a drawer. But I also thought it could be a book, too, from very early on. It was not unlike the first time I saw my future wife: a feeling like, “Hm, I think there might be something here.” I held off for quite awhile on trying to start shaping the material into a book, a tendency that has in the past had a way of crushing the life out things before they have a chance to grow. Instead I just tried to keep having fun and churning out material. After a while, I knew I had enough stuff for a book, if I could ever pull it all together into something coherent.
Our old pal Josh Wilker will be in town later this week (and into early next week) to promote his critically-praised memoir Cardboard Gods. First up, Thursday night. Josh will be featured at a No Mas event at the Nike Store in Soho from 7:30-9:30. He’ll be reading from the book and signing copies too. Oh, and there’ll be a bubble-blowing contest as well.
I’m so there.