The Beckoning World
by Douglas Bauer
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Pub Date 01 Nov 2022 | Archive Date 01 Nov 2022
University of Iowa Press, University Of Iowa Press
But dreams sometimes suffer from a lovely abundance, and in Earl’s case her name is Emily Marchand. They fall quickly and deeply in love, but with that love comes heartbreaking complications.
The Beckoning World gathers a cast of characters that include Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; a huge-hearted Pullman steward offering aphoristic wisdom; and countless others, not least of which is the 1918 Spanish flu taking vivid spectral form. At the center is a relentless love that Earl and Emily are defenseless against, allied as they are “in this business of their hearts.”
“It’s been said that beyond being a storyteller, the novelist is also by default a sociologist, a historian, and a psychologist. And if they are any good, they are a magician too. Douglas Bauer is all these things in this expansive, insightful portrayal of the life and times of Earl Dunham, a coal miner turned baseball pitcher turned farmer. Ranging across the first half of the twentieth century, The Beckoning World gives us this man’s story, the long love of his life, Emily Marchand, and his son, Henry. The book provides a vision of American life and legend—Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are vividly portrayed—but most importantly, through Bauer’s sorcery, it provides a bright window into the nature of love itself, familial and passionate, abiding, and, yes, going through the ‘blunt work’ of survival in all weathers.”—Richard Bausch
“A rich, enthralling read. The characters and the world stayed with me long after I closed the covers.”—Dennis Lehane
“The Beckoning World does beckon, unfolding lives and enfolding readers with love stories, all the heartbreaks we cannot outrun, the lucky and unlucky life of a family and a world past. Bauer sees with telescope and microscope, inner and outer world shared with loving clarity and an open brilliant elegance.”—Amy Bloom, author, In Love
“The Beckoning World seems at first a throwback: a novel that celebrates the rock-solid values of a bygone America as we track its protagonist from the coal mines to the stunning good fortune of a ride-along on a barnstorming tour with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. But it turns out to be quietly subversive about our relationship to our aspirations—both as a nation and as individuals—as well as the way love—both eros and caritas—just keeps coming for us. Doug Bauer has a wonderful ability to celebrate who we were without losing sight of all those ways in which we fell short of who we hoped we’d become.”—Jim Shepard, author, The Book of Aron
Average rating from 4 members
The Beckoning World is a complex novel: intelligent and sentimental in equal measure, carefully restrained and yet brimming with emotion, grounded in reality but fanciful in its fantasy of baseball celebrity. This is a tale of ordinary desire, ambition, failure, and the sacrifices of love that we can recognize in others and in the society at large, and yet there is enough fiction here to allow us to deny the existence of this tragedy in our own lives.
If you love Stoner by John Williams or Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, Reader, you’ll appreciate the agony of life Bauer portrays here, the quotidian kind, the slow descent into ordinariness that we all must confront, whether we accept it or not. The Beckoning World is as much a tale of the world beyond our borders as it is the world within our constraints that we cannot escape. The call is not always one to adventure, but a tether.
That is not to say this novel lacks adventure for it does not, it has adventure in buckets. The Beckoning World is also a coming-of-age journey, tracing that phenomenon’s mental and physical challenges and explorations. There is a real adventure here — and the kind of fantasy that some of us only dream of. Reader, you’ll live vicariously through Henry’s eyes, live through the fantasy of childhood — his and perhaps your own.
It is hard to pinpoint what The Beckoning World is about for to outline its plot captures only a small part of its appeal. Its characters are the real attraction here: Earl, Emily, Henry, Babe, Gehrig, Walsh, Lottie, Rooster. They are manifestations of persons in our lives; flawed and perfect. Bauer develops them with succinct, incisive prose that, in silences, invites the reader’s imagination to participate. Bauer captures our investment quickly, and Reader, you’ll be rewarded quickly; the story moves at a steady pace even as it lingers in some moments longer than others. Like Williams and Nabokov, novels of that mid-20th century period, Bauer’s prose is the sort I enjoy: narrative, descriptive (but not overly so), structured.
The novel is set in Midwest America in the early 20th century. There is a pastoral quality to it, one that is generic, recognizable, comforting. This element of the novel is cast in a sepia light, historical and still otherworldly: this is a time and place lost to us and only visible through a veil of nostalgia. It begins with Earl, a young man from the Midwest who — like many of us — is faced with the choices of adulthood and responsibility. Emily, a young woman from the same rural background must make the same decisions, balance desire with practicality. The result is Henry, who becomes the central focus of the novel and who is the focus of the great baseball adventure that ensues.
Through a fantastical encounter with baseball, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig and a journey across the country Earl and Henry come to terms with their loss, life, and future. This is a bildungsroman of the American kind.
A highly enjoyable, thoughtful read. The Beckoning World is a wonderful addition to the genre of the classic American novel.
Earl Dunham leaves the coal mine of his hometown to escape his father and ends up in a coal mine someplace else, until a baseball scout sees him pitch during a pick-up game and offers to change his life. Earl is playing in the minor leagues and dreaming of the majors when he meets Emily—a farm girl turned waitress who traveled across the state of Iowa for the summer, to learn something of the world.
The big themes of this novel are love and sacrifice, and what it means to dream when reality weighs so heavy on the mind and the body. The question of whether Earl will be a star is answered early on, but even so, the question for the reader is whether to savor this novel slowly or race to the end.
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Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov