Richard Brautigan wrote twelve novels, ten published in his lifetime, one posthumously and one never published. His fourth novel is formally titled, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, usually shortened to The Abortion, and was first published in 1971. It’s part-genre parody, part-magical realism and the prose bristles with humour, pathos, untamed man-whiskers and daylight chauvinism. The central conceit is that there is a library, somewhere in San Francisco, which catalogues and stores unpublished books donated in person by their disregarded author. The system of classification is chaotic by nature, each author is invited to place their book wherever they feel it would be most comfortable on the shelves, like a pathetic fallacy ascribed to Dewey Decimal.
The book gives the library an address; the real address, in fact of the Presidio Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. The building is a red brick cube with a sandstone façade of arches and columns. It would be unlikely to be handed over to the bizarre concept of Brautigan’s library, and its staff lamented the continual enquiries from literal-minded readers of the novel.
What is a particularly pleasing transition from fiction to real life is that one appreciative reader, Todd Lockwood of Burlington, Vermont, brought the idea of a library for unpublished manuscripts to life with the creation of the Brautigan Library collection in 1990.
Lockwood describes how the idea came to him watching the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, where the lead character, Ray, builds a baseball diamond in his Iowa corn farm. Shortly after he completes the field, Ray turns to his wife and say, “I have just created something totally illogical.”
Lockwood knew he was going to build his library, as if a whispered command from Richard Brautigan had brushed past his own ear.
W.P. Kinsella wrote Shoeless Joe, the novel upon which the Costner movie is based, in 1982. He originally titled the book Dream Field, which the publishers rejected, demonstrating the indelible difference between book publishers and movie producers. The publisher’s lawyers were more daring however, as the J.D Salinger character, replaced by a fictional stooge in the cinema adaptation, appears in the novel by name. Kinsella had never met the reclusive author of Catcher In The Rye, predicted Salinger’s litigious indignation and said, “I made sure to make him a nice character so that he couldn't sue me.”
The novel imagines a group of Chicago White Sox players implicated in a notorious and shameful match-fixing scandal in 1919, led by the most well-known of them, Shoeless Joe Jackson, appearing as apparitions to a farmer in Iowa who is prompted to build them a field to play in. Kinsella’s book builds on the tradition of a sport seeped in metaphysical rumours and overbearing sentimentality. Take the Curse of the Bambino, for example. Or the permanent retirement of the number 42 shirt. Howlin’ Hilda in Ebbets Field, ‘The Catch’ in the Polo Grounds and Lou Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man in the World’ speech in the old Yankee Stadium. Look them up. Stories and characters embarrassing the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters for over a century.
The circular link between Lockwood’s library creation and the Field of Dreams inspiration took on an eerie property after a chance meeting between Lockwood and Kinsella in 1991. Lockwood had been invited to display an exhibition of his Brautigan Library at an arts festival in Seattle. He was approached by a man with white hair and an Emilio handlebar moustache. He introduced himself as Bill, otherwise known as W.P. Kinsella, the author of Shoeless Joe. He told Todd, “Were it not for Richard Brautigan, I would never have written that book.” The site in Dubuque County, Iowa used for the filming location of Field of Dreams has in time fulfilled its own prophesy, left intact by the movie’s producers and still a popular tourist destination. They built it, and so on.
Walter O’Malley was a divisive figure in baseball. As owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he steered the team to one of the most successful and profitable franchises in the immediate post-war period. Then he did something many baseball fans in Brooklyn and beyond thought unthinkable. He moved the Dodgers 2800 miles across the country to Los Angeles, where they still play today. Walter O’Malley began his professional life as a lawyer and investor, before managing a Trust Fund which included the assets of Charles Ebbets, the majority owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time. After being appointed the club’s attorney he bought the majority ownership interest in 1944. With manager Branch Rickey, the club was set to break the colour barrier in 1947 and win the World Series in 1955. Still, Walter was not a popular man in New York, as an old joke from the time demonstrates. “If a Brooklyn man finds himself in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and O'Malley, but has only two bullets, what does he do? Shoot O'Malley twice.”
Walter passed the presidency of the Dodgers to his son Peter in 1970, retaining the role of chairman until his death in 1979. Peter avoided the controversy of intra-continental relocation, saw the team win the World Series twice during the 1980s and continued his father’s legacy for running the organisation ‘the Dodger way’, arranging an ice-cream delivery to the head office for every day the team sat atop the National League West table.
Peter O’Malley was chairman of the Dodgers until 1998, when the club was sold, bizarrely, to Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp. O’Malley concentrated much of his tenure to developing Historic Dodgertown, a sports training complex in Florida where southern segregation laws were famously disobeyed and promoting the game at youth and international level. It’s this second area of interest that strays into the narratively sentimental territory of Brautigan’s library and Kinsella’s dream field. O’Malley, coming from a family aware of their Irish heritage, contacted a small number of baseball pioneers in Ireland and built them their very own, referentially titled ‘Field of Dreams’ in Corkagh Park, West Dublin.
Fiction into reality and back again. As a circuitous association between an improbable institution made real by one reader of a Californian novelist, a whimsical sports novel adapted into a classic movie and an American businessman planting a square of grass in suburban Irish parkland, it is tenuously satisfying. Like a conceptual library. Or a baseball game.
As a footnote, the Irish baseball team, established in 1996 and now homed at a purpose-built stadium in Ashbourne, County Meath, won the gold medal in the European Baseball Championship in 2018, giving them the chance to qualify for the sport’s reintroduction to the next Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020.
It almost sounds like the premise of a surreal cult novel, or a feelgood sports movie, right?