Cardboard Gods

From BR Bullpen

Cover from the original hardcover edition

Cardboard Gods is a baseball-centered memoir by Josh Wilker originally published in 2010 and derived from a website of the same name he had maintained for a few years before that.

Wilker tells an autobiographical story of his youth growing up in rural Vermont in the 1970s as a fan of the Boston Red Sox, like every red blooded pre-adolescent New England boy at the time, and as an avid collector of baseball cards. However, his youth was not the typical white picket-fence All-American tale, which gives the book a lot of its interest. He was born in the New Jersey suburbs of New York, NY, his father a sociology researcher and his (much-younger) mother an aspiring artist. At some point when he was still very young, his mother fell in love with a young beatnik she met on a peace march, and he soon moved in with the couple and their two young sons (Josh's older brother, Ian, plays a central role in the story), as the father is willing to experiment with an unconventional family arrangement, this being the early 1970s, a time when conventions were being thrown to the wind.

A few years later, in 1974, his mother and her lover, Tom, decided to move to the countryside with the two boys, to rural Vermont, to indulge fantasies that were common at the time of going back to the soil, living off the land and, in Tom's case, learning a trade as a blacksmith to help make ends meet. His father stays behind in New Jersey, living in a small apartment, but never divorces and in fact continues to support the rest of the family financially and sees them regularly. The two boys thus grow up in this unusual set-up, in a repossessed country shack far from civilization, the family trying unsuccessfully to raise sheep for wool and meat, Tom converting the family VW camper van to a mobile forge by adding a chimney (traffic safety regulations were more lax back then). The two kids attend the local school, with Josh in a hippie version of primary school with no structured classes or curriculum. They are considered outsiders and weirdos in the small town, even if there are a few other hippie families around. In this dire environment, the boys find a great source of pleasure in using all of their spare change to collect baseball cards, which can be bought from the general store half a mile from where they live, and playing around with them.

The titular "Cardboard Gods" are the players represented on those cards, serving as a link to the outside world and to a possible normalcy not found in their strange family configuration. Each of the short chapters in the book is illustrated by a Topps card from 1975 to 1981, with Wilker's comment on its design, content, or link to his particular circumstances. Many of his comments have an existentialist bent, wondering what hides behind a bored expression, a cryptic smile, and unusual background, and so on, at a time when card collecting was strictly a kids' pursuit. The shared passion, as well as their Red Sox fandom, bring the two brothers together, but Ian, being older, grows out of it earlier, and as he becomes a teenager, just wants to get out of this small town in the middle of nowhere. Josh turns to his Gods for consolation, but while he enjoys the collecting immensely, until also growing out of it early in 1981, being a Red Sox fan is no piece of cake. He idolizes Carl Yastrzemski, follows the 1975 World Series, then has his heart broken by Bucky Dent (who, he wants to believe, never existed, or at least died in a tragic wood-chipper accident sometime around 1976) in the 1978 one-game playoff against the New York Yankees. That memorable season is followed by years of futility, Yaz retires, and Josh realizes he is just as much of a misfit when he starts attending a regular middle school, as his mother and stepfather's hippy dreams recede further and further away.

As a typical Gen-Xer, it takes Wilker years to find his place in the world, as he drifts through the 1980s and early 1990s in dead-end jobs, as a liquor store clerk in New York, but also as a teaching assistant at a small college in Vermont after he finally gets his act together and completes a B.A. in English. The 1986 World Series turn out to be a particularly traumatic experience, reinforcing his conviction that he is just part of life's losers. He finally gets to see Bucky Dent in person at a New York Mets game in 1993, when he is coaching third base for the visitors, and yells to him: "Bucky Dent, you ruined my life!", but it provides little catharsis. During those years, he often shares a tiny apartment with his brother, who is finding it equally hard to find a solid footing in life, but also lives for a time with his mother, who is working on completing a PhD, demonstrating some unsuspected discipline and perseverance, with Tom, with his father, and even his grandfather near Cape Cod. He does eventually find his way, starting to write young adult stories and novels, and, when he finds another temporary job restocking shelves at a bookstore, meeting a cashier who will soon become his wife. The Red Sox's triumphant win in the 2004 World Series and his gleeful participation in their victory parade through Boston, MA, alongside his equally enthusiastic brother, serves as an important turn-around, and by the time the book ends, he has found stability, as have the rest of his family members. The Gods he prayed to have come through.

Wilker received a lot of attention when he started his web site, as he was able in it to recapture a strange era with a sense of humor, but also sometimes poignant writing. The book received excellent reviews upon its publication and was soon reprinted in a paperback edition.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Josh Wilker: Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, Seven Footer Press, New York, NY, 2010. ISBN 1934734160

Related Sites[edit]