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The Literary Equivalent of a Walk-Off Grand Slam

Nelson Cruz ended the second game of the American League Championship Series with a bang not a whimper yesterday in Arlington, Tex., driving a pitch from Detroit Tigers’ righthander Ryan Perry deep into the left-field bleachers to give the Texas Rangers a 7-to-3 victory and a two-games-to-none lead in the last best-of-seven battle for the league pennant. Cruz’s blast was not the first game-ending or “walk-off” home run in the postseason history of Major League Baseball — the names of Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson, and Joe Carter come unbidden to the mind — but never before had a playoff game ended with a grand slam. I can’t even imagine the noise in the Rangers Ballpark when Cruz delivered his shot, but I can remember a game at the Astrodome that Jeff Bagwell ended with one of his signature drives that looked as if it would hit the roof before it cleared the fence. I couldn’t hear myself yell.

No sooner had Cruz homered, though, than Vicki Ziegler, a self-described “modest” book blogger from Toronto, tweeted the question: “What would be the literary equivalent of a walk-off grand slam?” (Somewhere, I am sure, a Jewish blogger is asking the related question, “Is a walk-off grand slam good for the Jews?”) Ziegler suggested that winning the Giller or Booker Prize or publishing a “NaNoWriMo” novel in December might just qualify. And though she allowed that “nothing in literary achievement” would make a writer “feel as euphoric as Nelson Cruz,” she went on to say that she had read things that obliged her to close the book and catch her breath. “That’s pretty walk-off,” she said.

I am trying to picture a crowd of readers rising to its feet and screaming itself hoarse at the ending of The Great Gatsby (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”) or even Russell Banks’s Continental Drift (“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is”). Nothing in literature can possibly approach the finality of a walk-off home run.

The ideology of “literary art” leads writers and readers alike to expect something that literature cannot deliver — what Howard Nemerov called “the quality of decisiveness and finish, of absolute completion to which nothing need be added nor could be added.” When Ziegler says that she catches her breath at something she has read, she is describing this sensation of “absolute completion.”

But it is entirely an illusion. Electronic texts, which enable the author to go on revising them forever, were anticipated by Henry James in The Middle Years (1893). Dencombe is staying at a hotel in Bournemouth when the postman brings his latest novel, “just out” in hard covers, its “fresh pages” carrying the “odour of sanctity.” Dencombe begins to read his own prose with a feeling of wonder. Although he realizes that his talent has never been so fine, and though he recognizes the problems he faced and sees where his art surmounted them, he cannot resist taking out a pen and altering the printed text:

Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final for himself. His ideal would have been to publish secretly, and then, on the published text, treat himself to the terrified revise, sacrificing always a first edition and beginning for posterity and even for the collectors, poor dears, with a second.

Why he assumed that the “terrified revise” would cease with a second edition, though, is beyond me. There is every chance that the novelist will revise errors and gaps into his book, as Herman Melville did with his famous phrase “soiled fish of the sea” in White-Jacket or as Mark Twain did with the missing raftsman episode in Huckleberry Finn, and generations of readers will catch their breaths at the absolute completion of a corrupt text.

The expression walk-off home run is only about fifteen years old. The earliest example of it that I’ve found is in a July 1996 story by John Hussey in the Manchester Union Leader, recalling Mazeroski’s famous home run that ended the 1960 World Series. “It was the only ‘walk-off’ home run ever recorded in the seventh game of the World Series,” Hussey wrote. Squeezing the phrase between quotation marks like this suggests that it may already have become familiar in speech (but not established in print) by the time Hussey wrote it. Seven years later, in the New York Times, Allen Barra assigned it to the category of buzz words, saying that the “noble ‘game-winning home run’ — a phrase that used to compliment the winner — has been transformed into one that thumbs its nose at the loser.”

The doctrine of the breath-catching finish is a lot older than that, although it may only be a way that the fidgety and sleepless novelist, unable to hit upon a “final form” that quiets his nerves, thumbs his nose at his unsuspecting readers.