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Book Review: The Long Vigil

Jerome Charyn's Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil makes a fascinating piece of social anthropology, centered on the exploration of DiMaggio's relationship with Marilyn Monroe, how it captured national attention, and how it has resonance as a cultural touchstone.

Mining the wealth of biographies and documentaries about Joe D. and Marilyn, Charyn's slender volume is clearly a labor of love. He writes of living in the Bronx and following Joe's post-war exploits as a boy.

Charyn is puzzled by DiMaggio: "Why did his intensity and terrifying heat in center field diminish away from the field and leave him with so little sense of purpose?" Charyn writes in the prologue. "Why did [DiMaggio] become so dysfunctional and end his days in a golden ghetto, frightened of his own fame yet needing to guard it with a stubborn, maddening will?"

Charyn answers his own question as he explores the DiMaggio myth. DiMaggio was baseball's pre-eminent star as the United States plunged into World War II. So, he was one of the men the nation looked to as it returned to normalcy after the war. That post-war DiMaggio was a shadow of his pre-war self hardly mattered; he took the field as he always had, played ferociously, and led his team to victory. DiMaggio wasn't a philosopher or a public relations specialist. He was a man with a unique ability to hit a baseball and to cover ground in center field. A man without a high school education, he was shy and reserved. We filled that silence with meaning. We lauded our image of DiMaggio until he seemed to be the man the national psyche needed.

The fact that he was not our paragon shouldn't be held against him, though it often is. And that DiMaggio's life after baseball floundered and sputtered is no real surprise; that seems to be true of most professional athletes. For some reason, we expected more of DiMaggio.

The Long Vigil's meticulous research is both its strength and its weakness. Its 180 footnotes against 146 pages recalls DiMaggio's own incredible K:HR ratio. I can't take issue with Charyn's scholarship or his credentials (a novelist, he boasts 2 NEA Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a finalist for the PEN/ Faulkner Award in Fiction, and a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres from the French Minister of Culture), but this is not a sports biography. There is no new research- no interviews or connection with the baseball or Hollywood worlds. Instead, Charyn writes in response to other books.

Charyn takes issue with depictions of DiMaggio as merely money hungry, but I think he overreaches in searching for some other conscious goal. All of DiMaggio's life, from the streets of San Francisco to the Seals to the Yankees, was spent playing baseball. What else was he going to do? I would argue that DiMaggio was driven to be the best because the fisherman's son didn't know what else to be.

I know very little about Marilyn Monroe, but Charyn's depiction is especially unflattering- a manipulator and social climber willing to sleep her way to the top. He finds DiMaggio's devotion inexplicable: "[DiMaggio] couldn't defend himself against this blond witch- she'd arouse him and bedevil him until he had no guard against her."

The Long Vigil has two powerful thoughts that I'm still turning over in my head.

First, that DiMaggio missed a real chance to break out of his baseball shell during World War II. Had he served in the trenches as Yogi Berra did, or flown a warplane as Ted Williams did, then perhaps DiMaggio could have connected with every day people in a way that would have separated him from his hangers-on and allowed him to enjoy the second half of his career and his retirement. It's a tragicomedy that I think we will see repeated as the modern era of athletes and their entourages retire.

Second, that DiMaggio's legendary iciness towards Mickey Mantle could have been avoided. DiMaggio might have wanted to be a friend to Mantle, as Gehrig was to him. But when DiMaggio arrived on the Yankees in 1936, Gehrig was still among the greatest players in the game; when Mantle arrived in 1951, DiMaggio was finished as a player, unable to pull the ball and, therefore, unable to provide the young Mantle with the protection in the lineup that Gehrig had given DiMaggio. For a man of so few words, the struggle to still be a great player was so hard on DiMaggio that he had no more energy for the young rookie. At the same time, Mantle was Casey Stengel's kid from the start, and DiMaggio resented Casey for trying to platoon him or force him to play first base. File it among the great what-ifs of baseball: what if Mantle had been a few years older and arrived on the Yankees in 1947 or 1948, when Joe D was still the great DiMaggio?

In sum, the Long Vigil is not a normal baseball book- it is a love letter from a fan to his hero.