Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Book Review: Cardboard Gods

Thanks to SoSG Sax for giving me this book, in which he inscribed:

To SoSG Orel
This blog thing sounds interesting. Maybe we should try it.

I discovered Josh Wilker's blog, Cardboard Gods, during the Dodger Thoughts-era Baseball Toaster years. A singular voice in the baseball blogosphere, Wilker uses seventies-era Topps baseball cards as launching points to delve into his personal life.

As a writer, the guy is fearless. It takes an insane kind of courage to write so directly and honestly about yourself — just ask this anonymous blogger.

Wilker's fearlessness paid off in a book deal, and the result is Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards. Think The Complete Book of Baseball Cards crossed with On the Road.

Wilker's was not a conventional childhood. His mother and father separate but do not divorce; her hippie-era idealism and his weakness are major factors in the book. His mother's boyfriend is another, but Wilker's defining relationship is that with his older brother, Ian. They grow up in Vermont (Red Sox fans, of course), and their love-hate, push-pull, older-younger dynamic makes for the most poignant of Wilker's writing.

But it's our own Steve Garvey who provides the impetus for one of the most painful chapters in the book. Wilker describes Garvey's "1976 card featuring an all-American asphyxia-blue two-plus-two-makes-four symmetry broken only by the reaching out of the 1974 NL MVP's glove hand, an aesthetic disturbance that seems to call on the viewer to complete some larger symmetrical pattern."

"I needed heroes. I needed gods," Wilker writes. "But Steve Garvey and Superman took it too far." So affected is Wilker by his demons that the all-American becomes clownish. There are no rose-colored, gift-wrapped aphorisms to be found here.

The only disappointing thing about Cardboard Gods is that Wilker doesn't devote enough space to major milestones in his life: the Red Sox's two World Series championships, and his marriage (insert joke about which is more meaningful). He makes so much of pain and humiliation — joy and happiness get short shrift here.

But really, who makes art from joy and happiness? Wilker's artistry is based on his acute self-awareness, making Cardboard Gods worth a read as a journey through the complexity of his upbringing and maturation barely hinted at by the flatness of his baseball cards.

Cardboard Gods has just been released on paperback.

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Fred's Brim said...

I read this when it came out and I really liked it. I was sad when I was finished with it. I also got to meet Josh at a book reading thing last year.