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The Changing Seasons of Mark Harris's It Looked Like Forever: Henry Wiggen as Athlete and Everyman
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The Changing Seasons of Mark Harris's It Looked Like Forever:
Henry Wiggen as Athlete and Everyman

Mark Harris's It Looked Like Forever, the last of his four Henry Wiggen novels, has received far less critical commentary than the first two, The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly. The third Wiggen novel-A Ticket for a Seamstitch-has suffered the same neglect, but as a short comic novella originally written for Life magazine (but never published there), it clearly lacks the gravity of the other three and thus there is logic to its failure to attract much attention from scholars of baseball literature. The neglect of It Looked Like Forever, though, is curious, given that it unfolds and examines the end of Henry's life as a ballplayer. Granted, The Southpaw is an accomplished and appealing novel, introducing young Henry as a sort of Huck Finn with a fastball-a rube on the surface, but capable of coming of age on the big stage in the big city against the backdrop of the Korean War. Add to the maturation tale Henry's vernacular narration, linking the novel to the literary tradition of baseball established by Lardner, and there is much to like about The Southpaw. Similarly, Bang the Drum Slowly, with its tragic plot and subsequent motion picture popularity, casts a long shadow over It Looked Like Forever, a novel written in 1979, over twenty years after the relatively short burst of creativity (1953-57) that produced its three predecessors.

Though The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly are fine novels, the quality of neither justifies Christian Messenger's offhand dismissal of It Looked Like Forever as "an ill-advised comeback."1 Contemporary reviews of the novel were mixed. Among the more negative reviews, Joseph Epstein argued that "it goes on too long" and "will be incomprehensible to someone who has not been following baseball closely."2 At the opposite extreme, Richard Stern, in a review of several novels, singled out It Looked Like Forever as a "work of narrative perfection."3 Neither misguided comeback nor perfect narrative, the final novel of the Wiggen tetralogy is one Harris said "had been on [his] mind for [End Page 1] quite some years," and one that has much to offer in its treatment of middle age for both athletes and everymen.4

At first glance, It Looked Like Forever may seem a bit cliché. It is often said that a professional athlete dies two deaths, the first at the close of his or her career, and the second, of course, the natural death everyone must face. Both athletes and sports commentators alike occasionally repeat this idea-usually in vox gravitas to give it the weight of profound wisdom-as yet another piece of evidence of the exceptional nature of athletes. This early but metaphoric death is much of the subject matter of It Looked Like Forever, but Mark Harris's skill as novelist elevates the theme of double death beyond sports cliché. Harris certainly recognizes the professional athlete's dilemma of having to give up his trade at an age when most people are entering the prime of their careers, and much of the interest the novel generates comes from its careful examination of Henry's difficulty in accepting life after baseball. The novel is further complicated when Harris portrays Henry, the mythical ace of the New York Mammoths' pitching staff, as a middle-aged everyman in addition to an aging ballplayer. Thus, Henry's struggles with his loss of youthful power are not the stuff of some ESPN documentary, exploited for entertainment, but a psychological experience artistically crafted to evoke sympathy and understanding-if not pity and terror-for both his plight and his means of coming to terms with becoming one of many, as his wife puts it, "younger older persons like you and me."5

An Athlete Dying Middle-Aged

Henry's struggle to accept his role as former baseball star and "younger older person" emerges in a fairly straightforward plot. At the funeral of his longtime manager, Dutch Snell, he learns he has been passed over to be Dutch's successor, a position he...