Review of The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball

Richard Parks


The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball.
By Nicholas Dawidoff.
Pantheon Books, New York;
288 pages; $24.95.


There is a certain hedonistic pleasure I derive from watching a baseball game on television, from first pitch to final out. Many find the couch-potato approach to ballgame spectatorship augments what is seen as an inherent, lamentable slowness in the game, and prefer to experience the screen version in a public place, often with alcohol and other people, like a sports bar. Most privilege the live, in-the-flesh ballpark experience (where there is also beer to buy and drink, and other people to look at, talk to, and smell). But to me ballgame appreciation reaches a distinct, undeniable splendor in the reverie of TV—intimate camera angles on every play, pitch, and facial expression; and the accrual of minute detail after minute detail, forming a majestic, literary arc from inning one through nine.

It’s no coincidence I find bookish literary works are best experienced in similar fashion, and received in a semi-supine, couch-buttressed posture where the commune between Man and Art makes the solitary experience a shared one. Of all literary forms, the memoir is therefore most appropriate, in my mind, for a baseball book. And to thresh out the minutiae of a human life from the very beginning in narrative progression is a distinctly televisional baseballish practice. This is the mode Nicholas Dawidoff picks up for his The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball.

At 46, Dawidoff may not have yet played a full nine, but the book’s genesis is squarely in his relationship with his late father, the proprietor of a kind of sub-eponymous madness. Accompanying a Ulysses-to-Dedalus-style paternity that unconsciously infects the entire family, Donald Dawidoff’s mania and present-absence have mostly defined his son’s life to date. The book is also about Dawidoff’s mother, his family’s immigrant roots, growing up in America (the East Coast), death, being precociously smart, well-read, sensitive—more great stuff for a literary memoir. The author parses out these and other themes against his emerging realization that his father is indeed mad—which moves at the same baseballishly slow pace as his boyish burgeoning and, yes, literary love for the Boston Red Sox in the age of Fisk and Yastrzemski and Tiant.

Dawidoff’s father and baseball share a specter-like quality throughout, especially during the author’s early years. Each is unknowable in its distance. The dance between these two far-off possibilities creates a psychological pulse and narrative momentum.

By the time Dawidoff is three, his parents have split up, and his interactions with his father are increasingly traumatic, often marked by outbursts of anger or unsavory sexual discourse from the old man. Young Nicky and younger sister Sally grow up mostly in New Haven with their schoolteacher mom. “It is important for you to have a relationship with your father,” Dawidoff’s mother continually reminds him; but nobody tells him what form that relationship should take. Meanwhile, Nicky builds an assessment of his father based on the degrees to which he feels wronged by him. “Your father is supposed to protect you,” he writes, “and mine was scaring the hell out of me.”

New Haven is his mother’s domain. It is female, nurturing, and structured—the locus of all first experiences, independent intellectual thought, and continual literate banter between Dawidoff and his mother (In defining the word “fop” for Nicky, his mother explains that the English repeatedly save the foppish, fashion-and food-obsessed French from military decimation. “What about Lafayette?” he rejoins. “Honestly, Nicky,” comes the response.), a woman who never picks up a book without finishing it and remembers everything she reads. Meanwhile, his elusive, mercurial father takes an apartment in New York, a place that becomes imbued with a frightening paternal presence. It is his Harvard and Yale-educated, sometimes-lawyer father who instills in his son a love of language. (“[H]e spent a lot of time playing with the English language, frolicking and cavorting with syntax, neologisms, and unusual nomenclature the way some people I knew amused themselves with Play-Doh.”) He gives him his first books, and even takes him to his first ballgame (Mets vs. Pirates, the recount of which contains a great Proustian moment as the author stands before “a stained trough” in the men’s room). But Dawidoff is so emotionally and physically removed from his father that his childhood becomes a series of small—and ultimately futile—searches for a paternal definition (he at one point admits he does not know what “Dadly” noises would sound like). But his Uncle Tony, his friends’ dads, his mother’s infrequent suitors, his Tolstoy and Red Sox-loving Russian materal grandfather—none give a true sense for what a father should be.
Ballplayers assume the inverse foil of this paternal aspect, and baseball at least distracts—if not supplants—the void left by the father’s absence. It is in this that the author deviates from the American boyhood norm of baseball love, for his appreciation of the sport assumes a utilitarian aspect as it consoles him. With no TV and not even a newspaper at home—this being the sixties and seventies—the young Dawidoff has no way to find out anything about ballplayers beyond card-collecting, a hobby he points out in those days had an “aleatory complexion.” “To possess their cards was to know them a little,” he writes (only “a little”), and lent an “illusion of interaction.” Dawidoff’s first baseball crush, the 1969 Mets, have a seductive quality for the youth, and like his absent father, they remain invested with a religious mystery. “To love every Met was my first great act of faith,” he writes, “and one that made me forever understand the pull of ignorance, how seductive is the logic of tautology. They were supposed to be heroic, and so they were.” And so they became. Dawidoff was six when he fell in love with the 1969 Mets, and his life for the four decades following continued to track his heroes, and he to live, as we tend to do, through the triumphs and failures of a favorite baseball team.

Like ballgames, lives accumulate meaning in non-linear, almost haphazard ways. Present events are often invested with significance only in full context, from the vantage of the future. It’s therefore the tendency of the memoirist to reinvent stories, or tell them unfaithfully. There is also the problem of remembering and the necessity of retelling the past, which “has an inevitable way of asserting itself even if you don’t want to know about it.” It is in this retelling—and in an awareness of its great complexity—that The Crowd Sounds Happy assumes its fully melancholic state, and it is a beautifully melancholic book.
In the story of the first ballgame he attended with his father, Dawidoff writes: “because there can be only one first game, and, because I was there with my father, there has long been the urge to recall more of it, to make it a memorable experience and a happy one.” The game goes into extra innings with the Mets winning in possibly thrilling fashion. (“I must have been thrilled. Strangely, though, I recall no ecstasy.”) Having arrived at the game hopeful for players’ autographs and, with mitt in hand, expectantly awaiting a foul ball, Dawidoff finally describes a “useless confinement” he feels on the packed subway on the trip home. The only memento he takes from the game is a fetish familiar to most youth—a concession stand-purchased autographed ball, which was “enclosed in a dome of clear styrene plastic and was stamped ‘facsimile,’ which I took to be a special big league kind of horsehide.” As for father and son? Eerily, it’s one of the more pleasant scenes they share in the book. “[H]e did everything in his power to make the afternoon special for me,” Dawidoff writes. “He did not even really like baseball.”