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Short Reviews

Mythologies

by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers
Hill and Wang, 158 pp., $5.95

Brown Bomber: The Pilgrimage of Joe Louis

by Barney Nagler
World, 236 pp., $7.95

The Washington Pay-off: An Insider’s View of Corruption in Government

by Robert Winter-Berger
Lyle Stuart, 341 pp., $10.00

During spring training in March, 1962, Roger Angell, fiction editor for The New Yorker, started writing casually about baseball “at a distance and in retrospect,” unhampered by the daily sportswriter’s continuous race with deadlines. These pieces, all published originally in The New Yorker, are the result—a decade’s worth of meditations and observations on the metaphysics of the game.

For Angell, in baseball there’s always “something more to be discovered.” He is intrigued by the geometrics of the game, the pitcher on the mound holding “the inert white ball, his little lump of physics,” while the batter, “wielding a plane, attempts to intercept the line”; and its mathematical lineaments, the box score, for example, is “not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure.”

Angell’s commentary on the 1962-71 pennant races and World Series is as sharp as a curve that breaks perfectly at the letters: the Dodgers’ Maury Wills is “a skinny, lizard-quick base runner”; the incomparable Koufax didn’t merely overpower hitters, he “dismantled” them; Rico Petrocelli was “subject to fatal spells of introspection when approaching ground balls”; pitcher Lolich worked “like a man opening a basket of cobras”; the Yaz of 1967 suffered “all the prizes and ugly burdens we force on the victims of celebrity.” Occasionally Angell becomes waspish (he scorns the franchise-hopping greed of some owners and sneers at Judge Hofheinz’s Astrodome and its artificial turf—“I had the sudden feeling that if I unzipped it, I might uncover the world’s first plastic worm”), but usually he’s searching for the Higher Game, the cosmology behind each pitch, each swing, each “shared joy and ridiculous hope” of summer’s long adventure.

Although Mythologies, published fifteen years ago in France, may seem a lamentably late arrival on these shores, it is still the gamiest of structuralist studies. In these short, spirited essays, Roland Barthes investigates what he calls “petit-bourgeois culture” (what we call “Pop”). However, beneath the raffish subject matter—“The Face of Garbo,” “The Brain of Einstein,” “Operation Margarine”—a systematic “unmasking” takes place. Toys, for example, are really a microcosm of the adult world: “they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size.” For Barthes, “wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.”

These statements, perhaps, taken out of context, sound portentous or absurd. But Barthes is a wily observer of “naturalness” and the “falsely obvious.” A vivid polemicist (Marx, Freud, and Sartre are part of his well-equipped arsenal), Barthes has something too of the classic artistry of Montaigne. Indeed, unlike most structuralists he is a pleasure to read. Of course, in methodology he owes an immense debt to Ferdinand de Saussures, the great Swiss linguist who died in 1912, but Saussures could never have imagined the sinuousness of Barthes’s style or the zest of his insights. “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt.” Surely that is the best comment made on la Divine. This English edition of Mythologies excludes “Billy Graham Comes to Paris” and one or two other pieces. The selections, however, are ample, and the translation fine.

Louis’s life was like a kite nobody could reel in,” Nagler, a sportswriter, writes in this deserving biography of the former boxing champion. In chapters alternating between the Bomber’s ring career and his later bouts with paranoia he shows Louis as a man capable—until time caught up with him—of demolishing powerful physical opponents but unable to cope with the furies of the psyche. The book is mainly of interest for its descriptions of the tragic struggle over the latter—the once great fighter refusing to eat, insisting that the Mafia was trying to poison his food, pathetically calling the FBI or President Nixon for protection because the walls of his bedroom were talking to him, systematically taping shut air conditioning vents wherever he stayed to stop the poison gas, smearing mayonnaise over the cracks in the wall, or mumbling about a plot to involve him in making pornographic films or making delusional accusations about his wife (“Martha’s in it, too,” he told Nagler. “She made a loan off the Mafia and couldn’t pay it back, and they said she had to help them get rid of me”).

Nagler records other revealing details here too—Louis’s insatiable gambling, his sexual affairs, and the illegitimate child born in 1967, his perpetual indebtedness and IRS problems—and all serve to remind us how particularly transitory is sports glory, how deceptive the easy buck, how fragile an ex-champ.

Many people—possibly a great many—will buy and read The Washington Pay-Off. Buy it because Lyle Stuart intends an advertising campaign at least equal to that lavished on The Rich and the Super-Rich, and read it because scattered throughout are engrossing and, in several instances, sensational disclosures concerning some of the most recognizable names in American political life—former President Johnson, Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, former Speaker McCormack, Congressman John Rooney, Minority Leader Ford, President Nixon, Majority Leader Hale Boggs—not to mention such hustling busboys of venality as Bobby Baker, the late Nathan Voloshen and his side-kick Martin Sweig, and New York Supreme Court Justice Mitchell Schweitzer. Most of the time Winter-Berger, five years (1965-69) a free-lancing lobbyist in Washington, only extends what we already know: there is an enormous amount of influence-peddling and bottom-feeding going on in Washington (e.g., compare his comment that “GE lobbied both parties and, by Washington rules, had the right to expect favors from whoever was in power” with the current ITT imbroglio).

But there are certain allegations here of a more serious personal nature in which the central issue will surely revolve around Winter-Berger’s own credibility. His statement, for example, that a Senator was arrested in a Greenwich Village gay bar raid some years ago may be contested; so will his assertion that Congressman Rooney was Voloshen’s “key connection for the underworld”; and so (perhaps) will his most incendiary tale: soon after becoming President in 1963, LBJ, distraught by the breaking Baker scandal, came to then Speaker McCormack’s office and said, among other incriminating things, “John, that son of a bitch [Baker] is going to ruin me. If that cocksucker talks, I’m gonna land in jail.” Winter-Berger, who claims to have been witness to this extraordinary

outburst, reports further that Johnson was crying hysterically: “I practically raised that motherfucker, and now he’s gonna make me the first President of the United States to spend the last days of his life behind bars.”

As a lobbyist, Winter-Berger worked both sides of the aisle, for both Democrat McCormack (via Voloshen-Sweig) and Republican Ford. The amazing and ultimately incredible aspect of all of this is that Winter-Berger tries to continue the double-hat role in his book—he is privy to all of the green exchanging hands but at the same time he professes no wrongdoing; his conscience is as clean as that proverbial hound’s tooth, and at one point he insinuates he was a spy among the fixers for the Justice Department.

This is an age of lying in government and hence cynicism about government. There will be those prepared to accept Winter-Berger’s testimony at face value. This is the price for the failure of open government—the citizenry, denied access to the truth, its birthright, becomes a mob ready to swallow innuendo and surly rumor in lieu of full and honest information.

(Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)

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