A novelist’s sympathetic meditation on the life of the legendary New York Yankee.
This latest in the publisher’s Icons of America series is, perhaps, best understood as a response to Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (2000), a critical biography that, while acknowledging DiMaggio’s preternatural gifts as a ballplayer, exposed the Yankee Clipper as an off-the-field nightmare of a person: friendless, greedy, and cheap. DiMaggio’s mark on the game—three MVPs, 13-time All-Star, nine World Series championships, the untouchable 56-game hitting streak (see Kostya Kennedy’s 56 for in-depth coverage)—and place in American cultural mythology endures. How was it that this splendid athlete lived a private life so appallingly at odds with his image? Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel, 2010, etc.) never contradicts Cramer’s unsavory facts, but instead puts a kinder spin on them, painting Joltin’ Joe as a baseball idiot savant, defined and ennobled by his isolation in centerfield and the batter’s box, comfortable only within the confines of a game he perfectly understood, where his fierce will, intensity and pride drove him to win and made him, if not loved, certainly revered by the fans. The author identifies DiMaggio’s need to be watched and desire for approval as the secret weakness of this shy, insecure man. Indeed, argues Charyn, DiMaggio’s flaws—his morbid sensitivity, inability to bear mistakes and utter humorlessness—made him a better player. After baseball, this “legend without a purpose,” whose only genuine language was “the lyricism of his own body,” became a stilted spokesman and the central attraction of any memorabilia show lucky enough to secure the services of the Greatest Living Player. Otherwise, he spent his last four decades carrying a torch for the deceased Marilyn Monroe, once famously and briefly his wife, who baffled him completely.
Though sometimes over the top as he reimagines DiMaggio—“[Yankee] Stadium’s suffering Christ”—Charyn supplies an intriguing, plausible take on this notoriously opaque hero.