My favorite player on the 1978-80 Chicago Cubs was Dave Kingman.
Nicknamed "Kong" and listed at 6 feet 6 inches and 210 pounds, Kingman had a swing that one might call "long," which meant contact was unlikely, but when contact was made, the resulting violence done to the ball was something worth seeing. At Wrigley, he once hit a ball out of left field across Waveland and onto a porch on North Kenmore Avenue. Though Kingman hit 48 dingers and had 115 RBIs for the '79 team, he also struck out 131 times, making his overall value to the Cubs somewhat debatable. But oh, those homers!
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I invoke the treasured memory of Dave Kingman because I realize that I have a soft spot for books and writers who take a Kingman-esque approach, writers who take big swings that often result in strikeouts, but also may deliver a for-the-ages home run.
A.M. Homes' "May We Be Forgiven" from last year qualifies as Kingman literature. It features a professor of "Nixonology," a bludgeoning by lamp, Internet-solicited sex, a bar-mitzvah in a South African village and a cameo by Don DeLillo. Oh, and it's a comedy, sort of. Whether this book is a home run seems to depend very much on the reader.
Kingman literature doesn't need to be doorstop thick. Nicholson Baker's novels tend to be slim little numbers, but still Kingman-esque in their big swing in a little package approach. The entire action of "The Mezzanine" is contained in a single man's trip down the elevator. There's a multi-page digression on the eyelets on the man's shoes. His novel "The Fermata" tells the story of an approaching-middle-age temp worker who can and does stop time, occasionally taking the opportunity to grope frozen women. I do not know that I ever enjoy Baker's books, but I read them all.
Lionel Shriver is a writer whose books I do enjoy and who likes to take mighty swings at her subjects. Her best-known work "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a dark meditation on mothering and school shootings. "So Much for That" is a domestic comedy/drama about cancer, birth defects and the absurdity of the American system of health care. "Big Brother," her latest novel, takes on body image and obesity. She writes about the biggest societal issues you can imagine set against ordinary lives. As I'm reading her books, I often question her narrative choices, and "Big Brother" has a plot twist that had me throwing the book to the ground, but I couldn't help but pick it back up. Her work frustrates and angers and entertains. I want it to be different, except I also couldn't imagine changing a word.
For me, though, Tom Wolfe is the reigning Dave Kingman of literature. He's hit a couple across Waveland — "The Right Stuff," "The Bonfire of the Vanities" — but he also manages to whiff mightily, i.e., "Back to Blood," "I am Charlotte Simmons." But even in the novels that don't work, the attempt is so bold that you can't help but admire the effort. When Kingman would screw himself into the ground following a swinging strike three, I would cry out in anguish, but there was always a little awe mixed in. I was happy I had the chance to witness it.
In the end, we don't want the Dave Kingmans of the world to square up to bunt. They need to swing for the fences, strikeouts be damned.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Joyland" by Stephen King
2. "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust
3. "Dear Life" by Alice Munro
4. "Nickel Mountain" by John Gardner
5. "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides
— Cynthia S., Naperville
John Williams' "Stoner" has become something of a sensation in its reprinted form, but we shouldn't overlook his other books, including "Butcher's Crossing," a novel totally unlike "Stoner" except that one knows one is in expert hands.
1. "Where'd You Go Bernadette" by Maria Semple
2. "Brewster" by Mark Slouka