Book Review: Diminished Capacity by Sherwood Kiraly

Sherwood Kiraly reminded me of what I have.

Kiraly is the author of Diminished Capacity (2005), which in 2008 became a major motion picture of the same name, starring Mathew Broderick, Alan Alda and Virginia Madsen. The movie I haven’t seen. It didn’t last long at the theatres, which doesn’t surprise me, since it’s not the kind of story that usually even gets made into a movie.

Frank-Wildfire-SchulteCritics were not all that kind to the movie, directed by Terry Kinney, a founder of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote that although it “touches earnestly on heart-heavy issues of loss: loss of memory, of love and, perhaps because of the local angle, of (or rather by) the Chicago Cubs,” but that the movie lacks “a sustained pace” and that there is “no sense that this was a movie that absolutely, passionately had to be made.” Though Dargis does give a nod to a “short, frenzied scene about an especially masochistic Cub fan,” played by Dylan Baker. Even the local critics were not impressed. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Philips found any charm the movie evokes to be lost to faux whimsy.

If it hadn’t been for Roger Ebert’s 2-star review, in which he described it as a “mild pleasure…but not much more,” I would never have heard of Kiraly’s book and would never have sought it out.

The movie, and the book on which it is based, as Michael Philips wrote in his review, “rests on the fate of a small item of great value, a Chicago Cubs baseball card – Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, 100 years old, near-mint condition.” The same card I own.

Okay, I admit it. My initial curiosity was piqued by the idea that my card might be of greater value than I thought it to be. Had I unknowingly been sitting on a pot of gold all these years? That flight of whimsy was dashed after a little online research turned up an interview with Kiraly, in which he clarifies that the story is purely fiction and that the fictional elements extend to the actual value of a T206 Wildfire Schulte card.

Oh, well, so I’m not going to be able to take that early retirement I’d wistfully dreamt of. I am a little bit richer, though, by having read Kiraly’s book, which is about memories, the ones we hold on to and the ones we’ve lost. Few books I’ve read have better captured the essence of baseball cards and the hearts of Cubs fans.

In one scene the story’s brain-injured narrator, Cooper Zerbs, has brought his Uncle Rollie, who has early Alzheimer’s, to a sports card trading show in Chicago to try to sell his uncle’s valuable card and he begins to reminisce about baseball cards:

“A baseball card of, say, Ron Santo calls up images that radiate out from Santo himself to include his teammates, his opponents, Cubs past and present, and the circumstances under which the fan saw him. It reminds you not just of Santo and his baseball connections; it reminds you of you.”

Moments later, when he comes upon a 1966 Jose Cardenal, Cooper becomes nostalgic:

“It gave me a tingle, I’ll tell you. I became a kid again instantly. I was back in that exact moment when I’d opened the first pack I ever got. ”

The “masochistic Cub fan” that the New York Times critic wrote of is a card trader named Mad Dog McClure. Cooper sees that being a Cubs fan has taken a toll on him.

“A lot of people say they’re ‘die-hard’ Cub fans. It seemed to me that Mad Dog McClure was of the type who dies again and again. ”

If you are either a baseball card collector or a Cubs fan, or, like me, both, then this story about memories, treasured, faded or lost, is one that you won’t soon forget.

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