Book Review: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker

Cardboard Gods: an All-American Tale Told through Baseball Cards is not, as its cover and title may indicate, an innocuous book. It is not even a book about baseball cards. Instead, it is a book about baseball fandom, and how fandom ties into family and memory and childhood in 1970s America. In the truest sense, Cardboard Gods is a memoir – a caringly and unusually crafted story that turns the quiet internal desperation of growing up into something palatable and significant without relying on melodrama. Baseball cards are the mechanism. Author Josh Wilker is his own subject.

Wilker himself is what separates this book from the typical Biography fare at Barnes and Noble. Wilker’s is not a glamorous story. He is not a head of state, a commercially successful author, or a star athlete, and the book is defined by the author’s hyper-awareness of this fact. The chasm between the baseball card collector and the ballplayer on the card is as vast as the Green Monster is tall. Wilker writes about an encounter with Red Sox star Jim Rice that he had as a ten year old:

“He turned toward me. I was too shocked to say anything. After all my years of worship, I couldn’t believe a god could hear me, that a god could look me straight in the eye.” Wilker’s imagination is so powerful, his mythmaking so comprehensive, and his daily life so distant from the Cardboard Gods themselves, that the very notion of Jim Rice’s actual humanity marks a turning point. The Gods are shown to be human. “Life got more complicated after that,” Wilker writes with rueful bluntness.

The paradox of all this, is that as the book develops, it becomes increasingly clear that the titular Cardboard Gods are not deities at all. Rather, they are minor characters, useful in providing historical context, in marking the passage of time, and in propelling certain anecdotes. At their best, they seem to serve as proxies for the real god in the story: Wilker’s older brother Ian. It is much easier for Wilker to come to terms with Steve Garvey’s disingenuous smile and J.R. Richard’s hard luck than the blemishes of his older brother.

The undercurrents of hero worship and brother worship are united in a gut-punch chapter toward the end of the book’s second section (there are four). Topps 1978 #655: Lyman Bostock, which takes place just weeks before the Jim Rice incident, finds young Wilker alone at night with this brother, desperately questioning his own existence and the meaning of the universe.

“I…went and sat on the stairs and gripped my stomach with both hands, rocking back and forth, overpowered by the idea that someday I would not exist,” Wilker writes (he has a knack for stating major crises in simple, heartbreaking prose). The 27-year old Bostock, Wilker had learned that day, had been shot and killed in the backseat of a car – a case of mistaken identity. To calm his distraught younger brother, the fourteen year old Ian Wilker reads trivia questions out of a baseball almanac – “Who is the all-time career leader in triples?” “Who’s the all-time single season leader in doubles?” – until finally, the existential crisis passes.

Josh Wilker might love the Boston Red Sox, and his favorite player might be Carl Yastrzemski. But not even the great Yaz can read him trivia questions when his parents aren’t home. Ian is the God Wilker shares a room with, the God he can copycat. In the end, it is this relationship that carries the book forward. Not the reader’s desire to see another picture of a baseball card, or read another story about those players. I found that after a while, I was barely noticing the players on the cards – they only mattered in as much as they shed light on the story Wilker was telling about himself. In the same manner that form fades to the background of a great epistolary novel or carefully metered poem, the baseball card conceit fades here. Baseball cards augment the content, they do not define it.

The persona of the 40-something copy editor who lives in Chicago and writes movingly introspective essays about the baseball cards of his youth in rural Vermont is familiar to readers of the Cardboard Gods blog, which began publishing in 2006. Wilker’s blog has been featured in the New York Times and praised across the Web by outlets including ESPN.com. But his book is not a rehashing. The content in Cardboard Gods is all new. Wilker expounds on details that were merely brushed upon on the Web, such as his nontraditional family life and his relationships with his father, his mother, and his mother’s longtime boyfriend Tom (all three briefly lived under the same roof).

There is a point, around the Lyman Bostock chapter, in which Cardboard Gods becomes more than a memoir. It becomes more meditative. Without ever stating them explicitly, the book asks serious questions of fandom. What does it mean to make imaginary heroes of ordinary men, to make a religion of the statistics on the backs of baseball cards? At what point does fandom cross from being an interest to a lifestyle? As the book progresses, and Wilker struggles to at once free himself from the grip of the Cardboard Gods, and come to terms with his permanent seat at their altar, these questions become so poignant and pressing that it becomes almost impossible for the reader to continue without thinking these questions through for him or herself.

We may not all have had the same hopeless devotion to our baseball cards as a young Josh Wilker, but we have all lost ourselves in something imaginary. We have all sought refuge in the order of inconsequential places only to realize that the real world is in fact chaotic. In Wilker’s world, this means that the Gods turn out to be men. It fits that the most unabashedly human of the Gods (and the only to be the subject of a Warren Zevon song), Bill “Spaceman” Lee, is among the many writers who have praised Cardboard Gods in advance of its release.

The Spaceman has faced down his own hopeless devotion to the game. He has seen its ugly side. He would no doubt agree that true faith and true love, whether in baseball or religion or romance, are meant to be grappled with, questioned frequently, and reflected upon. Wilker’s faith is the furthest possible from unexamined. He is forced to accept the decided un-godliness of his Gods. Lyman Bostock is shot dead. Jim Rice is just a man who turns at the sound of a young boy’s voice. Steve Garvey is so clean cut he has to be a phony. J.R. Richard becomes homeless, living under a freeway. And the book’s final God, the Great Yastrzemski, strikes out.

Buy the book on Amazon here.

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