When Johnny Marches Up to the Plate
Play for a Kingdom
By Thomas Dyja
Harcourt Brace & Co.
416 pp., $25
In "Play for a Kingdom," Thomas Dyja, a former book editor and agent, has crafted a deep and mature first novel realistically encompassing two pillars of American history and culture - the Civil War and baseball.
Stirring and original, this unusual yet credible novel pits Rebs and Yanks against each other in a series of five games, before and after the grisly battle of Spotsylvania.
It is the spring of 1864, at the close of the battle of the Wilderness, the men of Company L, 14th Brooklyn - veterans of Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Gettysburg, and now just 17 days from the end of their three-year enlistment - are standing picket duty, guarding the perimeter of the Union retreat when they are pulled against their better judgment towards a shaft of sunshine in the thick Virginia forest.
Behind them lay two violent days of pointless skirmishing, and the deadening realization that "[a] war for principle and honor had become blood sport and they were being forced to play the game."
In front of them was the still-uncertain promise of home, and now, this ethereal wash of light.
Lyman Adler, a butcher back in Brooklyn, sees it first - a "trembling, honeyed light" that bathed a rich grassy field 150 yards across, a field that reminded Alder of the grounds where the Excelsiors played baseball back on Court Street in Brooklyn. He rustles about in his haversack for the baseball his son had sent from home, and invites his friend Newt Fry to have a catch.
Alder is aware that the woods about him are filled with Rebs but here in the grassy sanctuary he feels oddly protected. "This place seemed too good for shooting and there was evidence that he was right. Despite the horrors this forest had seen.... It was a private place that had somehow defied the worst of man and nature."
A company of Rebels soon disrupt their catch, but rather than shooting, the Rebels challenge the Brooklyns to a game of baseball - and thus provide the backdrop to Dyja's compelling, often graphic depiction of war fought at close range, where the bayonet is used as much as the canon.
Dyja's characters are complex and conflicted - far more real than they are appealing. The story moves dramatically towards climax yet never overwhelms the characters. And there is no burnished romance attached to either baseball or war.
The meetings of the two "teams" are not at all happenstance. John Burridge, the little-liked lieutenant in charge of the men of Company L, has been sent on patrol to make contact with a Union spy. The spy is the rakish plantation owner Sidney Mink, the Harvard-educated commander of the Alabama Confederates.
The insecure Burridge is drawn to Mink as his men had been drawn to the honeyed light in the forest. He sees in him "the eyes of an officer, of a man who can execute."
Burridge, mocked by his men, finds in Mink and in this mission a validation, an escape from the indecision and self-doubt that has marked his service and his life - a chance to prove himself to himself.
If the baseball passages are deftly written, the battle scenes are yet more skillfully drawn. There are no sepia photographs or mournful violin music evoked by Dyja's Spartan Spotsylvania.
This is not baseball as metaphor for war or even as escape from war. There are scenes enough where war is war and nothing else.
"A few dozen yards before them, across a thick sea of the dead and mud, Rebels and Union men fought at arm's length over a single four-foot log wall of entrenchment. Shreds and chips of wood shot off by bullets sprinkled everything nearby.... Bayonets bristled in each direction."
Baseball may allow the combatants to find virtue in their enemy as men, but Dyja and his characters give no metaphysical cast to the games. They are played with a nervous energy, each man looking over his shoulder. This is still war, and these games are fraught with their own peril.
Sometimes, though, as Thomas Dyja proves with this impressive novel, peering into human desperation can produce insight and prose of unusual eloquence.
* Charles Fountain is associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.