December 7, 2010

Book Review: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker

"I don't remember what I wished for before baseball."

Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards (Seven Footer Press) is a memoir, told through the prism of baseball cards from the late 1970s.

It is Josh Wilker's account of growing up in East Randolph, Vermont, in "an angelic state of stupidity and grace", of being an inattentive daydreamer who found solace and comfort in small colourful pieces of cardboard.

"With my cards, I knew where I stood. ... My card collection calmed me. ... I absorbed myself in my cards. ... I absorbed myself in the sameness of them, even as the sameness began to show signs that it was an illusion."

On his blog of the same name, Wilker states that he provides "the finest in whiny self-absorption, hackneyed nihilism, and pitifully desperate supplication in an ongoing attempt to hang on to a shoebox full of decaying baseball cards for dear life."

That's one (self-deprecating) way to look at it. Cardboard Gods (both the book and blog) is also a meditation on figuring out who you are, and how much of your childhood to hang onto. It's about the long process of casting aside the various costumes and masks you wear throughout your life, and finally -- through time-consuming and often heartbreaking trial and error -- feeling comfortable (hopefully) with yourself. It is about family, memory, baseball, and the unstoppable approach of adulthood.

If you are unfamiliar with Wilker's blog: Each post features a baseball card from his childhood which has some connection, however tenuous, to an event or feeling from his life. He might focus on the facial expression or pose of the player, some aspect of his career, the background of the photo, etc. Wilker first starting doing this while living in a cabin in the Vermont woods about ten years ago. Pull a card out of the box, look at it over the course of a few days, and see if it sparks anything. The Cardboard Gods blog debuted in September 2006.

In an ESPN interview, Wilker said the cards
have always been able to get me to start wondering. The moments captured in my cards from the '70s would seem to most people to be flat and trivial, the kind of thing that no one, not the player, not the photographer, not the great majority of people who would ever look at the card, could ever care much about. But because I cared about them as a kid, the stiff poses and enigmatic expressions continue to have a hold on me now, especially because many of them seem to include the same element of aimlessness and absurdity that has threaded through my post-childhood years. So they exist in two worlds for me, the adult world and the child world, and so it's no wonder I'm drawn to them, since I'm an adult who has been kind of perpetually haunted and fascinated by his own childhood.
Most of the book -- divided into four packs of 15 cards each -- is devoted to his childhood and it is wonderfully told. Once Wilker heads off to college and wanders through his 20s -- living in Vermont, California, Massachusetts, Europe, Brooklyn, Ohio -- the stories blend together. There are too many years in too few cards. Rather than seeing Wilker evolve into the person he would be, in the later chapters he is negotiating the world as the person he has become, trying to construct a workable life, to become "the best possible version of [him]self". This is a very small complaint, though, and it was less of a problem for me the second time I read it.

None of the entries in the book are taken directly from the blog, but some blog posts have been rewritten or extensively expanded. One memorable chapter is when Wilker hears that Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock has been killed (September 23, 1978). He is 10 and he asks his older brother Ian what happens when you die.
"How can it be?" I asked out loud. We're here and then forever we're gone."

"Look, just don't worry about it," my brother said.

"One minute suddenly nothing and that's it," I said, my voice rising.

"It's not going to happen for a long time."

"But it's going to happen!"

"Think about something else."

"Oh man oh man. It's going to happen," I said, starting to panic. "Omanomanoman."

I climbed down the ladder of the loft bed ... and went and sat on the stairs and gripped my stomach with both hands, rocking back and forth, overpowered by the idea that someday I would not exist.
There is also plenty of humour in the book, though it is often dead-panned and wry, and found in the corners of his stories. His memories of his job at a gas station in Cape Cod are hilarious (in a sneaky way), as is his recollection of going with his mom to hear Allen Ginsberg speak. And I can completely relate to his summation of a day spent with the woman he would eventually marry -- wandering around the city, petting a cat in an aquarium store, trying to buy a specific kind of sneakers, having dinner in some Italian joint: "It was nothing special. It was one of the best days of my life."

I'm sure that one reason I love Wilker's writing is that I recognize a lot of myself in him. I grew up roughly 60 miles northwest from him and although I am a few years older, we got into baseball and cards at pretty much the same time. Like Wilker, I was an introverted Red Sox fan who loved Yaz, wore out my paperback copy of The Bronx Zoo, and have vivid memories of watching Mark Fidrych face the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball in June 1976. We both met our respective partners in New York City, we were both at the Mel Hall game*, and we both enjoyed going to Shea Stadium.

* - Weird thing about that goddamn game. I think every Red Sox fan in the New York area was there that afternoon. Through the years, I have found (mostly online) more than 20 Sox fans who were there that day. Coincidentally, there are also only about two dozen people who liked Shea.

Fortunately for Wilker, the audience for this book is far greater than people like me. After all, who wasn't uncertain and anxious as a kid? Who didn't take refuge and solace in a hobby that other people thought was strange? Did anyone transition seamlessly into adulthood?

Plus the damn thing has blurbs from Bill Lee and David Cross! Really!!
Also: There are several online interviews with Wilker and Bronx Banter has one of the best. Here is a bit about how Wilker started writing the blog. Buster Olney, who grew up in Randolph Center, remembers playing Strat-O-Matic with Wilker.


Jon said...

Thanks for linking that guest post at Dory Adams blog. I had not seen it before. Cardboard Gods is my favorite baseball blog. I think that Jere likes it, too.

Jere said...

Yes, huge Wilker/Gods fan--and also "1 of the 20" (who was at the Mel Hall game).

Nice review, Allan.

Michael Holloway said...

Nice Post. Thanks for the links.

Did the book come with gum?

redsock said...

They actually tried to put gum in it, but it did not work out, sadly. (Though the cover still SAYS there is gum.) There is a picture of a stick of gum opposite the copyright page.

Michael Holloway said...

I guess we all grew up in the era when 'they' stopped putting gum in baseball cards, Bazooka stopped putting cartoons in with the gum, the Cracker Jack people stopped with the toy - a terrible time to grow up.

It was important to me that it had gum. Like the bible with the pages cut so you can hide your gun in - they should have tried harder, imho.

I noticed this summer Bazooka had a cartoon in again - but I think it was a joke translated from the Chinese - I didn't get it. :]

L-girl said...

Great review. Sounds like a really nice book.

And I can completely relate to his summation of a day spent with the woman he would eventually marry -- wandering around the city, petting a cat in an aquarium store, trying to buy a specific kind of sneakers, having dinner in some Italian joint: "It was nothing special. It was one of the best days of my life."


L-girl said...

a terrible time to grow up

I can't tell if this is sarcasm, but I sure hope it is!

Jeff Polman said...

Wilker wrote a fabulous, timeless book. For what it's worth, Josh is also managing the 1977 Red Sox in my "Play That Funky baseball" online blog/league. First week of September they're just three games out, with Yaz having an MVP-caliber year. Odd, isn't it?

Jon said...

Is it kosher to link to something I wrote about the book? I did a multibook review a couple of months ago on my blog and CG was one of them along with Satchel and Dayn Perry's book on Reggie Jackson.

redsock said...

Link away!

redsock said...

Forgot to mention that Josh sent me a copy of this book. I asked him how to buy a signed copy and he said he would simply mail one out. However, I don't think he was expecting any sort of a review.


A behind-the-scenes story:

In late March/early April 2008, I had commented on JoS, wondering why there was no Red Sox blog at the great Baseball Toaster site. Josh emailed me and a few weeks later, I was emailing with Ken Arneson (he was the head of Toaster and wrote Catfish Stew). He made some interesting points about JoS and how to make it a better fit for Toaster and about having at least one other contributor: Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods.

Ken's idea was for Josh and I to pair up on JoS (he would still do CG, too), like Cliff Corcoran and Alex Belth were doing at Bronx Banter. I liked the idea and I did not like the idea. I decided that changing formats (and URLs) in mid-season made no sense, so I proposed to Ken that we revisit the discussion after the 2008 season.

As that year went on, I decided that I (probably) would not want to move. I was afraid of losing some loyal readers who might not follow me over there, I wondered how game threads would work, various other things, etc. I can't recall if I officially declined, but it became moot when Toaster pulled the plug on February 4, 2009.

Jon said...

The Examined Life

Ish said...


Peter Abraham: Source: The Red Sox have a seven-year, $142 million deal done with Carl Crawford.

Holy shit, Theo.

redsock said...

Two recent Gammons tweets:

12:50 PM Dec 7th

about 8 hours ago

redsock said...