A fantasy for baseball lovers; Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 265 pp. $11. 95.
To say W. P. Kinsella's ''Shoeless Joe'' is a book about resurrection and baseball makes it sound foreboding and silly, and sometimes it is, but that doesn't matter at all.
''Shoeless Joe'' is a fantasy about an Iowa farmer who gets a message to build a baseball diamond, so that ''Shoeless Joe'' Jackson, a legendary baseball star who was banned from the game for alleged complicity in throwing the 1919 World Series, will come back and play on it. The message is in the form of a voice, a crackly-with-static baseball announcer's voice, that no one else can hear. He builds it, and Joe comes back, with, eventually, a whole phantom team. There are also phantom popcorn, fans, and hot dogs.
Kinsella does wonders in this book: The visual fantasies are so rich that whether you believe them or not, you can't help imagining them. There is no resisting Ray Kinsella - the protagonist - and his first vision of baseball past:
''Moonlight butters the Iowa night. Clover and corn smells are as thick as syrup. I experience a tingling like the tiniest of electric wires touching the back of my neck, sending warm sensations through me. Then, as the lights flare, a scar against the blue-black sky, I see Shoeless Joe Jackson standing out in left field. His feet spread wide, body bent forward from the waist, hands on hips, he waits. I hear the sharp crack of the bat, and Shoeless Joe drifts effortlessly a few steps to his left, raises his right hand to signal for the ball, camps under it for a second or two, catches it, at the same time transferring it to his throwing hand, and fires it to the infield.''
Ray Kinsella is a fervently enthusiastic character. You might get tired of mawkish and too physical descriptions of his love for his wife and his insistence on the kittenish cuteness of his daughter. But when he's talking baseball, the enthusiasm is catching. In fact, it was enough to make this reviewer, whose only contact with the game is the memory of being hit on the head with a softball she was supposed to catch, love baseball herself for a while. This is a convincing novelist.
Even when Ray Kinsella kidnaps J. D. Salinger (yes, J. D. Salinger), the novel keeps you believing. It's not so much believing; it's wishing. Things that happen in this book are so wonderful, you feel that if they didn't happen, they should have. Baseball players who had vanished into mythology keep turning up, one by one, night after night. The long-reclusive J.D. Salinger speaks again. The fantasy just keeps getting better. There is no lurking dark side of the story to instruct the reader not to ask too much.
The book must have been pure wish fulfillment for its author, who is described as spending his summer touring US baseball capitals. He has a rare talent for conveying pure joy. He waxes corny and nostalgic, but it doesn't matter, because by then the thrill of seeing all the old baseball stars is yours , too. It gets harder to put the book down as your expectations get going for the next great happening.
The descriptions of landscape are poetic, and the baseball details will warm fans' hearts and not get in the way of mere fantasy lovers. This book would make great reading on a summer vacation. In fact, this book is a summer vacation.