Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: City of Glass

new-york-trilogy.jpgPaul Auster is one of my favorite fiction writers. He’s also a Mets fan. The latter fact has nothing to do with the former–his work would be just as good if he liked the Red Sox, or the Rockies, or no baseball team at all. Then again, his novels are very New York, and they have a very Mets-ian cast to them, as Brandon Stosuy pointed out in this 2005 review for the Village Voice:

His hard-luck, Mets-loving characters wouldn’t work as fans of the Yankees … In Hand to Mouth, Auster admits that in his late twenties and early thirties, “everything I touched turned to failure,” including his marriage, his bank account, and his writing. That’s OK, though–his best characters are dealt the same lot and still make sure to check box scores that add up to another losing season.

Auster’s books are often about psychic torture, the longing to capture things which can not be captured, and pursuit of insane goals that can never be realized. If that’s not what it’s like to be a Mets fan, it’s damn close.

The Mets exist at the peripheries of many of his stories, mentioned in passing, usually by the narrator/main character. A reader unfamiliar with the team’s history or mythos might see these details as mere window dressing. But a Mets fan will recognize them for the touchstones they are.

My favorite examples are in City of Glass, the first book of Auster’s New York Trilogy. A man named Quinn, who writes mysteries under the pseudonym William Wilson (more on that later), gets drawn into a bizarre mystery of his own when a wrong number leads to him being hired as a private detective (despite not being one). Early in the story, he ducks into a diner to get a late night meal.

As the counterman swung into action, he spoke over his shoulder to Quinn.

“Did you see game tonight, man?”

“I missed it. Anything good to report?”

“What do you think?”

For several years, Quinn had been having the same conversation with this man, whose name he did not know. Once, when he had been in the luncheonette, they had talked about baseball, and now, each time Quinn came in, they continued to talk about it. In the winter, the talk was of trades, predictions, memories. During the season, it was always the most recent game. They were both Mets fans, and the hopelessness of the passion had created a bond between them.

The counterman shook his head. “First two times up, Kingman hits solo shots,” he said. “Boom, boom. Big mothers–all the way to the moon. Jones is pitching good for once and things don’t look too bad. It’s two to one, bottom of the ninth. Pittsburgh gets men on second and third, one out, so the Mets go to the bullpen for Allen. He walks the next guy to load them up. The mets bring the corners in for a force at home, or maybe they can get the double play if it’s hit up the middle. Pena comes up and chicken-shits a little grounder to first and the fucker goes through Kingman’s legs. Two men score, and that’s it, bye-bye New York.”

“Dave Kingman is a turd,” said Quinn, biting into his hamburger.

“But watch out for Foster,” said the counterman.

“Foster’s washed up. A has-been. A mean-faced bozo.” Quinn chewed his food carefully, feeling with his tongue for spare bits of bone. “They should ship him back to Cincinnati by express mail.”

“Yeah,” said the counterman. “But they’ll be tough. Better than last year, anyway.”

“I don’t know,” said Quinn. “It looks good on paper, but what do they really have? Stearns is always getting hurt. The have minor leaguers at second and short, and Brooks can’t keep his mind on the game. Mookie’s good, but he’s raw, and they can’t even decide who to put in right. There’s still Rusty, of course, but he’s too fat to run anymore. And as for the pitching, forget it. You and I could go over to Shea tomorrow and get hired as the two top starters.”

“Maybe I make you the manager,” said the counterman. “You could tell those fuckers where to get off.”

“You bet your bottom dollar,” said Quinn.

I scoured through Retrosheet to see if I could find this game–given the players mentioned and when the book was written, it would have to have been in 1982. Near as I can tell, Auster’s description is not of an actual game, but a conflation of any number of hideous Mets losses in the awful days of the early 80s, of which there were plenty.

(I also discovered Neil Allen was not a very good closer. In 1982, he was responsible for seven losses in relief and four blown saves for a team that didn’t have many late-inning leads to protect. He gave up three runs twice and four runs once to hand the opposition a win. Three times, he snatched victory from the hands of Mike Scott, who didn’t have many good starts when he was a Met.)

Later in the book, after a labyrinthine mystery drives Quinn insane, he finds himself in a strange apartment, trying to make sense of what’s become of his life:

…So many things were disappearing now, it was difficult to keep track of them. Quinn tried to work his way through the Mets’ lineup, position by position, but his mind was beginning to wander. The centerfielder, he remembered, was Mookie Wilson, a promising young player whose real name was William Wilson. Surely there was something interesting in that. Quinn pursued the idea for a few moments, but then abandoned it. The two William Wilsons canceled each other out, and that was all. Quinn waved good-bye to them in his mind. The Mets would finish in last place again, and no one would suffer.

I found this passage particularly chilling, as I often perform similar mental exercises to make sure my brain is sharp and I’m not insane–despite the fact that being able to recite a team’s lineup off the top of your head is a form of insanity.