...an ambitious first novel students of nineteenth century baseball will love because it's written by a prominent historian of the nineteenth century game and because he takes special pains to integrate his story with the history of the game. The story is set in 1884, for Nemec, "the most wonderful and exciting [baseball] season ever." The central character in the novel, Earl "Ducker" Draves, finds himself at one time or another in two of the three competing major leagues. He plays a few games for the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association, gets much of his playing time with the Cincinnati Outlaw Reds of the Union Association, and plays second base in the last game of the championship series between Providence and the New York Mets. This allows the author to depict the struggles of a young man to understand himself and the urban world of major league baseball in 1884.
"Ducker" Draves is a fictional character, but he is based on the records of actual ballplayers and is closely involved in the actual events of the 1884 season. All of his colleagues in the book are true figures. One dimension of the book is a series of sketches, brief essays, really, of prominent baseball personalities. I counted nineteen, beginning with Charlie Jones and ending with "Hoss" Radbourn. They take up perhaps a quarter of the book. Though this reader enjoyed each of them, they do interrupt the story line of the novel. I wish the book read more as if it were fiction. These actual ballplayers also act and speak as fictional characters, an honorable literary convention, and one practiced by Ring Lardner in YOU KNOW ME AL, a literary ancestor of EARLY DREAMS in more than this way.
Draves, like Lardner's busher Jack Keefe, is a recruit, a young man from the country making his way in the urban world of major league baseball, though 30 years before Keefe's journey. He's better educated, a better writer and speller than Keefe, but he has some of the same problems and a similar way of dealing (or not dealing) with them. Drinking, gambling, women, and sex present themselves as problems to Draves as they would to Keefe. Race, something "solved" by segregation in Lardner's time, was an additional problem for Draves. Another difference is the tone of Nemec's novel; it is much more serious in tone than Lardner's. We laugh at Jack Keefe. But in the very first scene in EARLY DREAMS, O.P. Caylor concludes, on hearing about Draves's youth, "Tragedy everywhere you turned here." (3). After his experience with the Red Stockings, Draves speaks of "something spoiled in me" (50), later of "my own moral disintegration" (132), and finally asks his roommate Max McQuery, "don't you ever have a similar feeling, that you're doomed no matter what you do?" (107) EARLY DREAMS sounds a more somber note.
What saves the doomed Draves is his feeling for the game of baseball, an early dream he appears never to give up. Performing as a baseball player, he concludes, "I'm where I'm meant to be."
Sam, I learned something wondrous this afternoon. I learned that base ball stands above suspicion and betrayal, and yes, even above winning. Out there on the diamond infield today, with the warming sun above my head and the dirt baked hard beneath my feet, I felt like a king in his castle. I felt like a king, Sam, because I realized that during every game I play I am a king. Win, lose or draw, I'm doing what I love most among men who love it too and in front of people who are there to canonize us as the heroes they can no longer dream of becoming in their own harsh and careworn walks of life. (152)
As happy as this sounds, there is more to the novel.
The "Sam" in the above quotation is a second fictional character, Draves's uncle whose own baseball career was cut short when he lost one of his legs in a railroad accident. As Jack Keefe was always writing to his friend Al, so Draves is in correspondence with his uncle (Nemec shows considerable restraint in never identifying him as "Uncle Sam"). Though Draves continues to hope he will, Sam never comes to see him play and in fact seems to withdraw more and more from Draves himself as the story progresses.
The most demanding aspect of Nemec's novel is his employment of multiple narrative voices. One is that of Earl Draves as he corresponds with his Uncle Sam (there are some 34 letters). Another is that of Draves as he confides to his diary (we have some 24 entries). A third is the historian's voice that gives the publisher cause to say the book "reads as if it were non-fiction." Finally, there is an omniscient narrator, an all-knowing voice that reports events as if from above. Why all these narrators? Nemec acknowledges "the many other baseball historians and friends who were kind enough to help me find the best way to tell Earl Draves' story", suggesting that this was a central problem in composing the novel. The multiple narrative voices enable Nemec to tell us more about Draves and Draves' world than Draves can tell us himself. YOU KNOW ME AL is limited by Jack Keefe's perspective. In EARLY DREAMS, the reader learns things Earl Draves will not and cannot tell himself. For instance, we learn from the omniscient narrator that the actual game "above suspicion and betrayal" was actually a fixed game, and Draves himself never learns this. He remains an innocent. The last pages of EARLY DREAMS, a letter from Earl to his uncle, followed by a portrait of Hoss Radbourn collaborated on by the omniscient narrator and the historian, sum this up brilliantly. Draves gives his uncle an entirely different account of his contract talk with the Outlaw Reds for 1895 than the reader has received from the omniscient narrator. The letter as a whole is conciliatory; Sam has either been silent or critical of Draves' behavior through much of the correspondence, and Draves closes by withdrawing his suggestion that Sam's disabling accident might have been alcohol-related.
That suggestion, that Sam himself might have succumbed to the temptations of drink, had been made by another of the few fictional characters in the book, Draves' sometime intended who called herself, among other names, Constance Voss. She is at once an image of urban sinfulness and, like Draves himself, a victim of the city's wiles. She is finally abandoned by Draves, but they share the same dream of urban celebrity. Draves reports to Sam that Constance has had to give up "her dream of becoming someone" (136). Baseball has enabled Draves to hold on to that dream. Sitting with Radbourn in a saloon after the third game with Providence, Draves reflects that "the great pitcher made you feel as if you too must be someone while you were around him." (167)
Yet the last scene of the book makes it clear that the dream is a false one. Draves sees Radbourn as a heroic personage, an ideal with which to replace his Uncle Sam. But the book finally emphasizes Radbourn's difficult life and early death. Draves attends his burial in February 1897, on a windy, snowy day, not the best weather for baseball, where Draves was "meant to be."....