William Patrick Kinsella died, at a moment of his own choosing, with the help of a physician in September 2016. Back in 1982, Kinsella published his most famous novel, the baseball tale Shoeless Joe. His folksy adult fantasy story was a writer’s home run. A laser shot, out of the yard. Kinsella’s book went through more than 30 printings in paperback in no time at all. It won the distinguished Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship and was adapted into the Oscar-nominated movie, Field of Dreams, starring the winningly boyish Kevin Costner. The film grossed a tasty $65 million in the United States alone. Kinsella was one Canadian writer who had left behind the dour pessimism of his home and native land for American myths of hope and redemption.
Build it and they will come.
Kinsella followed his big success with further collections of baseball stories and humorous tales about Native people outsmarting federal bureaucrats on the reserve. A leading light in the rebellion against realism, he wrote with a gentle whimsy generally associated with 1960s West Coast fabulists such as Richard Brautigan. A master of sweet-toned, soft-boiled prose, Kinsella had an unerring eye for themes of identity liberalism. Yet, in his private persona, Kinsella was considerably more hard-boiled than his prose. An ardent western conservative who rocked a cowboy shirt and string tie, he strongly supported the Reform Party. To anything and anybody east of the Mississippi, Kinsella automatically affixed the adjective “snotty.” Consequently, his stories often led to conclusions not likely to please academic critics. They responded predictably to Kinsella’s stories about Native people by accusing him of “appropriation of voice.”
Just another cisgendered exploiter, as the jargon would have it.
The books that followed Shoeless Joe did not clear the fences. Instead, there were singles and ground rule doubles. A previous collection of Indian stories, Dance Me Outside, was made into a small budget Canadian movie, and a spinoff CBC television series, The Rez. There were no massive print runs, no Kevin Costners, no prestigious prizes or Academy nominations in sight.
They did not come.
In the 1980s, things got worse for Kinsella when, dropping down literary league standings into the midlist of writers, publishing with major houses became more difficult for him. Then, while walking on the highway, Kinsella suffered a traffic accident that resulted in a head trauma that kept him on the writing disabled list for 14 years. Next, a love affair, a real car wreck, with the writer and former escort, Evelyn Lau, some 30 years his junior, who celebrated the end of the affair with a triumphant tell-all article, “Me and W.P.”, in Vancouver Magazine, which took careful note of poor Kinsella’s thinning hair, yellowing teeth and aging body.
Russian Dolls: Stories from the Breathing Castle, a posthumous volume of fiction by Kinsella, is published by Coteau Books, a small non-profit literary press out of Regina. Apparently inspired by his relationship with Lau, it is not quite a story collection, not quite a novel. The book consists of a framing story depicting an ill-fated relationship between Wylie, an aspiring writer, and his much younger muse, Christie. Within this larger story nestle, like Russian dolls, the tales inspired by the blitzkrieg of their love affair.
It is not certain whether Kinsella hit on a brilliant structural concept or merely a clever marketing device to transform a stack of short stories, not a few previously published, into something more commercially appealing than another story collection.
It is 1979. Wylie lives in a dingy rooming house in East Vancouver he calls the Breathing Castle. As a writer, he is really getting bruised. He has a three-inch folder of rejection slips and he supports himself by driving a taxi. In fact, Wylie is so poor he cannot afford a surname. He writes unsuccessful stories of gentle fantasy. As he types, coloured flowers appear on the page. Reality is too much for him.
Christie, who often talks of herself in the third person, is the post-truth era personified. A foul-mouthed street babe, with an ironic smile and low-cut blouses, she often packs heat; she is also a pathological liar. She tells Wylie, “I have no idea who my father was, all the creeps my mother hung out with wanted to cop a feel or get into my pants.” But maybe Christie is not trailer park arm candy after all; maybe she is the off-scouring of a dropout aristocratic Virginian mother “who studied art history at a snotty eastern women’s college in the States.”
Street rat or spawn of arrogant eastern academics, Christie is wildly unreliable and big trouble. But when she moves into Wylie’s squalid rooming house, assuming the role of writing coach, she takes the hitch out of his swing and his stories improve. Not only is she a sack artist of the first rank, but Christie is also an in-house story editor on a level with Max Perkins. She tells Wylie, “I don’t want to read any more … about dancing buses.” No more magic happenings, she decrees. And Wylie starts to swing. He writes down and dirty love stories from skid row East Van: he is the new Charles Bukowski. He writes stories about interned Japanese during World War Two. He writes love stories about impoverished Ukrainian immigrants on the prairies’ lower depths. He is the Maxim Gorky of Alberta. He is now a male Trilby with a street mama Svengali, and editors start begging for more. Kinsella wisely quotes Robert Graves: “No one poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident.”
Often the narrators of the stories are “strange, damaged girls” telling bleak tales about abusive men. Once again, Kinsella is exploiting contemporary liberal identity themes. But, once again, the stories themselves lead to conclusions unlikely to please anyone concerned about abuse. As Wylie’s love affair with Christie inevitably goes into decline, he tells her, “You’re doing your best to get me to hit you, aren’t you?” In other words, just asking for it, right? Not an analysis calculated to please women—or, in this age, many men.
It cannot help matters that Kinsella’s abusers are darker-skinned men, black or Italian. The villains of the framing story are a group of black gangbangers wearing Oakland Raiders regalia who threaten Wylie and Christie. Unfortunately, Kinsella has zero idea of either the criminal activities or the spoken idiom of the street. “We don’t want my friend to think we can’t afford to stay in a high class hotel,” he has one of the homeboys say. “We want him to think we are businessmen of solid reputation.”
Businessmen of solid reputation?
From a gangbanger? Come on, man!
Finally, the Muse disappears from Wylie’s life, telling him, “You’re no different from any other guy I ever met, except you went to school about twenty years longer.” A john is a john, even with a PhD. And, after she disappears, Wylie’s stories drift back to gentle sentimental whimsy. Abandoned by inspiration, his imagination begins to feel like “an egg that has been dropped on the floor.”
The debate whether W.P. Kinsella was a literary Hall of Famer or a one-hit wonder will continue in some circles. Only time will tell whether Shoeless Joe is a classic or a period item. I suspect it will stand with Bernard Malamud’s The Natural as an indispensable book for baseball fans for generations to come. As for Russian Dolls, whether a stroke of structural genius or a practical publishing manoeuvre, it is a welcome exploration of writing, the writer’s life and his troublesome love affair with imagination.