‘‘The Thrill of the Grass’’ is not an entirely realistic story, nor is it a work of pure fantasy. Like much of Kinsella’s fiction, it falls somewhere in between, portraying not the world as it is, but rather, the world as Kinsella imagines it might be. Kinsella writes in his introduction to ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass’’ that the storyteller has an obligation to ‘‘be anything other than boring,’’ and his means for achieving this is to ‘‘keep attempting the impossible. I like to do audacious things. I like to weave fact and fantasy. I like to alter history.’’ While Kinsella uses some of the techniques of magical realism, he is not a magical realist in the mold of South American writers like Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel Garcı´a Ma´ rquez. While Kinsella’s goal, as stated in his introduction to the collection, is to be an old-fashioned ‘‘storyteller,’’ holding his audience spellbound with tall tales of what might have been, he uses his own form of magical realism to accomplish this.
In an interview published in an issue of Modern Fiction Studies devoted to baseball, Kinsella dismisses realism as an artistic project, stating that ‘‘Fiction writers work with the imagination. Anyone with basic skills can write documentary realism. Sport realism is boring; the good authors of sport literature realize that and rise above it, often way above it.’’ While one could argue the merits of this statement as a general rule about fiction, it is clear from the events portrayed in ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass’’ that it accurately summarizes Kinsella’s project. He is interested in portraying a world where extraordinary events occur, and he uses baseball as his medium for this because he believes baseball to be a particularly open-ended and somewhat magical sport.
In ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass,’’ Kinsella establishes that we are in the world as we know it by starting with a real event, the long hiatus that the baseball strike of 1981 forced on the game. The narrator of the story takes to haunting the empty park, and one evening, as he is circling the walls of the locked stadium, he discovers a door. But while it turns out to be a real door, it is not a realistic door. It is first described as a ‘‘doorshape’’ and then as ‘‘more the promise of a door than the real thing, the kind of door, as children, we cut in the sides of cardboard boxes with our mother’s paring knives.’’ While it is a real door that opens and closes, by making the comparison to childhood make-believe, Kinsella links the door to the realm of fairy tales. Underscoring the link to fable, the door contains a lock, which confronts the narrator with the sort of challenge that is typical of heroes in fairy tales. Will he violate the integrity of his profession and to use his locksmith’s tools to pick the lock? Will he take up the challenge the story offers him? Like a hero in a fairy tale, the narrator takes the challenge, picks the lock, and thereby gains entrance to and control over the door that is at once both magical, and very real. Kinsella uses the tropes of a fairy tale when setting up his story, and yet the narrator is such a prosaic character that the veil of realism is not broken. To offer a fairy tale challenge to an older man, a father, an upstanding member of the community instead of to a young man trying to prove himself underscores one of Kinsella’s themes: the renewal of vitality in the twilight of life.
For nostalgia is a driving force in this story, and by the nature of its longing for an idealized past, nostalgia is rarely a realistic impulse. No one longs for the past as it actually was, fraught with the uncertainties that it presented at the time, but rather nostalgia is a longing for a better version of the past than the one actually experienced. Kinsella uses the nostalgic impulses of the narrator and the rich man to establish another layer of non-realism in the story. Nostalgia functions as a sort of magic in this story. Once inside the ballpark, confronted with the artificial turf that feels like ‘‘walking on a row of toothbrushes,’’ the narrator finds himself longing for the ‘‘ballfields of my childhood, the outfields full of soft hummocks and brown-eyed gopher holes.’’ Much of his relationship to baseball is tinged with this longing for the past, for a past when the field was made from real grass, when the players and owners did not squabble over salaries and benefits, and where his daughters neither moved to foreign countries nor married men who watch the game from the wrong side of the ballpark. It is by appealing to nostalgia that the narrator brings the rich man on board the project, a man who believes that ‘‘Baseball is meant to be played on summer evenings and Sunday afternoons, on grass just cut by a horse-drawn mower.’’ The men who are drawn to the park, who bear gifts of sod, are also driven by nostalgia for they are, as the narrator notes ‘‘mostly men my age or older, for we are the ones who remember the grass.’’ Even the nature of the surprise is couched in the language of nostalgia. Imagining the surprise of the reveal when the strike ends, the narrator compares it to the thrill of ‘‘delivering a valentine to a sweetheart’s door in that blue-steel span of morning just before dawn.’’ Even in 1981 the memories of ballparks mowed by horses and men leaving valentines on doorsteps were antique, but such is the power of nostalgia in the history of baseball that Kinsella harnesses it as a realistic source of motivation for all these old men to secretly, square by square, replace the artificial turf with green grass.
Baseball itself is a source of mystery and magic for Kinsella, and the game itself, with its storied past, provides a site of nonrealistic magic for the author. Baseball is also the only one of the major-league sports that is not timed, and for Kinsella this is a source of much of its magic. ‘‘The other sports,’’ he says in the interview published in Modern Fiction Studies , ‘‘are twice enclosed, first by time and second by rigid playing fields. There is no time limit on a baseball game. On the true baseball field the foul lines diverge forever. . . . This openness makes for larger than life characters, for mythology.’’ To Kinsella, baseball itself carries a sort of romantic transcendence: it is a game one attends because of the ‘‘beauty and mystery of the game’’ (as his narrator in ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass’’ describes it), not just to see who wins. The game’s connection to the natural world is part of this beauty and mystery, and although the baseball strike had nothing to do with artificial turf, in ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass,’’ it is that turf that comes to symbolize all that has gone wrong with the game. The old men have a pastoral vision of baseball in their heads. Their baseball is a game characterized by the smell of fresh-cut grass, by the sunshine of summer, and the warmth of midsummer dusk. This is not a realistic vision since by 1981 most baseball was played in big stadiums, often under lights, and often on artificial turf. Indeed, the narrator experiences the summer without baseball as a ‘‘disruption to the psyche,’’ almost as a disruption of nature itself. It is as though by replacing the turf with natural grass that the old men hope somehow to restore the sport itself to a more natural balance.
In many ways, Kinsella’s true subject in ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass’’ is transcendence. Kinsella is not interested in creating a realistic portrait of how fans survived the baseball strike of 1981, but rather in transcending that mundane reality with a vision of what might have been. Just as his characters seek to transcend the ordinary reality of their lives through their nighttime project of replacing the artificial turf, Kinsella wants to transcend the mundanity of realistic fiction by adding a magical element of imagination to his stories. We can see this in the image with which Kinsella closes the story, lowering himself to the wet grass, the narrator is symbolically baptized in the water that nurtures it: ‘‘My palms are sodden. Water touches the skin between my spread fingers. I lower my face to the silvered grass, which, wonder of wonders, already has the ephemeral odours of baseball about it.’’ The narrator, an old man, is symbolically reborn at the end, watered like the grass the others have borne to the ballpark, revitalized along with it. He and the other old men might have accessed the ballpark in a semi-magical way, but there is a realism to their project, by working together, by collectively believing in the dream of a real grass field, they have not only created a marvelous surprise, but have renewed their own senses of hope and joy. The story depends on this mixture of realism and fantasy, that there might be a mysterious door in the ballpark through which a stream of real old men would enter and create, with realistic, prosaic rakes and shovels and sprinklers, a marvelous surprise for the team and the fans.
In his interviews and writings Kinsella decries realistic fiction as ‘‘boring.’’ Just as his characters turn to baseball as a medium by which to transcend their ordinary lives, and turn to the restoration of the ball field to natural grass as a symbolic restoration of their own waning vitalities, so Kinsella embeds the tropes of magic and fairy tale in ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass’’ in order to transcend the mundane nature of realistic fiction.
Charlotte Freeman, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, W.P. Kinsella, Published by Gale Group, 2010