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The Sporting News

The Great American Novel

by Philip Roth
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 382 pp., $8.95

At this writing the St. Louis Cardinals have broken from the Great Gate like a lame horse, losing, with an ineptitude that is almost creative, fourteen of their first sixteen games, and one momentarily wonders whether the Ruppert Mundys, Philip Roth’s imaginary clot of last placers, have come back from the season of ‘43, returned to the history from which they’ve been expunged, risen in new suits, new names, in another league and park, to malperform—pop, whiff, miss, muff, kick, fluff, boot, balk, drop, juggle, bobble, bean, spike, strand, fan, walk, overrun and underthrow, to butter-finger, squander, foul out, blow—miserably to flop, to botch (in the alliterative language of Roth’s post-literate narrator, W. Smith), once more to fuck up, falter, fail, and finally to finish a faint and bitterly laughable last. The Cardinals even have a player with a beautifully Rothlike name, Scipio Spinks, who purports to pitch, and who has already lost four straight this season, probably because, it has been publicly surmised, someone stole his stuffed gorilla.

This reporter predicts that it won’t be long before banners hailing the resurrection and glorious reappearance of the Ruppert Mundys will be unrolled over railings in Busch, and if you have a fondness for failures, you’ll be unable to resist rooting for Roth’s remarkable collection of clowns. They are the sort of litter which results when underdogs have pups; they are the Paul Bunyans of bums and bunglers, samurai of the cellar (as we might, alas, not inappropriately say), not white or red but laughing soxs (to expel, alas again, the same humor from our lungs as Mr. Smith), for they blunder about on the field as if the essential saps and oils to fuel them had been squeezed from the latter-day Athletics, the wartime Browns, or the expansion Mets, and then shaken into foam like ball-park beer: there’s the legendary sore-armed pitcher, of course, the one-armed outfielder, the one-legged catcher; there are refugees from the Japanese or Nicaragua’s coastal leagues.

One decent ballplayer, for a change, sent to the Mundys by his father to learn humility, who on this team naturally bats eighth, feels his shame like a wool suit on a hot day, and is tempted to finagle a trade; there is a fourteen-year-old second baseman, an outfielder who collides with the wall on every catch, a dwarf (the midget’s on some other team), a drunken first sacker, and yet another player who, whenever a pitching change is made—yes—falls asleep on third—each figure drawn in strokes so broad their faces cease to have features, with such deep floods of cartoonist’s ink that like the Yazoo or Missouri, now many miles wide, one is conscious mostly of the corners of boxes, the heavy bob of barrels, the casual drift of bottles, brush, and other debris.

The Cardinals are interviewed, of course; the TV consults the man in the street; reporters analyze the problem, seek out causes, assign blame, exude hope; disk jockeys lamely, bravely, joke; fans are urged by one and all to come out to the park and cheer on players paid $100,000 a year to throw the ball in the dirt, lose flies in the sun, or sleep through a third strike, as if it were still the old days, back before 1943 even, when the poverty and peonage of the players guaranteed their legitimacy as heroes of the folk; and as I unwillingly watch, read, and listen, drawn to the pages detailing these sports the way I am to the latest Norman Mailer or episode of Little Orphan Annie, I am impressed by how well Roth, who is a wonderful mimic, has caught, not just the clichés of the game, the sentimental guff and locker room humor it showers in, the purchased attitudes which it parades, the silent acceptance of liars, bigots, cheats, its inherent brutality and the glorification of hairythumpchested bullybragging, or the thin, though desperate, passions of the fans; not just its crackcleaning devotion to Gun, God, and Flag, either, or the shabby morality of Fair Play on which Mail Pouch is spit to pay the doubtful service of its lips, or the anal worship of records and statistics which possesses it, the annual enshrinement of saints, or finally the greed which has consumed, by now, from soul and bone to pouched elastic, all but some buttons and the bills of a few caps; but how Roth has captured the threadbare lingo of the game as well, the very flex and posture of its muscle-beach prose, the hyperbolic hop and spin of a reportage that, like a pitch struck crookedly, immediately leaves the center of its course to curve continuously foul; one where the windup, left behind the throw, nevertheless curiously overtakes the delivery; and it is this, as well as the myths of boyhood and the language of the tall tale, that The Great American Novel1 is initially about.

It is not about baseball. It is not about how it really feels to prepare for or to play it. Roth does not care to convey the sense of how tobacco slimes in the mitt, and although there is here a more than complete history of the master of the spitter, Roth writes about the pitch because, of course, it is tempting to imagine all the things that might, like relish, be put upon a ball, and what, in an atmosphere of Far West exaggeration, the ball might then be prompted to do (piss upon it? yes, you guessed, and the first piss ball, after a pair of loopyswoops, falls soggily past the batter for a strike), and further because it is an example of a kind of okay violation of the rules like the State Lie, the Benevolent Betrayal, the Preventive War, the Discreet Silence, the Kind Cut, etc., which allows Roth to run his text into the arena of the political like the last bull on a hot afternoon.

Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is not about baseball either. So great a friend—still, no good poem about the dog is about the dog. Coover writes of his hero that “…to tell the truth, real baseball bored him….” What fascinates Waugh is “rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence.” Coover’s own interest, on the other hand, is in the character of the creative imagination—its rewards and perils—and his novel is a work of far more serious artistic intent than Roth’s. Although his ear is less sure, Coover’s taste is more reliable. He has his material under firmer control, manages it with a superior skill, and subjects it to a far more penetrating analysis.

I shall refrain, in this context, from wondering why authors of such widely several sorts and seriousness as Plimpton and Roth, Coover and Kahn, have begun writing about sport; whether this is portentous like the coming of comets or the thickening of caterpillars’ coats; and whether it is a cyclical phenomenon like the flooding of the Nile, or like the spate of Hollywood novels, exposés, shit parades, and bedtime to breakfast confessions, through which, a while back, we had to suffer the way we endure an invasion of Asian flu. In any case, it’s happened: the milk is spilt, the horse is stolen, the books are penned.2 And nearly everyone involved—novelists, journalists, players, coaches, owners, fans, and wives—is convinced (oh my yes) that their chosen sport is a marvelous metaphor for life, for American life, for American political life, American ideals…for the competitive spirit, the upward drive, the fear of failure…for the land of opportunity, the melting pot, for never having lost a war…. There the game is, and Roth has gone gunning for every beast in the jungle.

So The Great American Novel is not about popcorn, peanuts, and crackerjack, or how it feels to sit your ass sore in the hot stands, but how the play is broadcast and reported, how it is radioed, and therefore it is about what gives the game the little substance it has: its rituals, its hymns, chants, litanies, the endless columns of its figures, like army ants, the total quality of its coverage, the breathless, joky, alliterating headlines which announce the doings of its mythologized creatures—those denizens of the diamond—everything, then, that goes into its recreation in the language of America: a manly, righteous, patriotic, and heroic tongue.

The Ruppert Mundys, their home park taken over by the army as a staging area, play all the games of their penultimate ‘43 season away from home. Like Israelites they wander in the wilderness, the cast-offs cast out. Before it is all over and the Patriot League to which they belong is expunged from national memory, they will lose with a skillessness verging on genius. Aroused one day (as an animal at bay, a stag, let’s say), they will defeat an insane asylum team in an exhibition game. They will almost sustain a season-end winning streak because they are unwittingly feasting on bowls of doped-up counterfeit Wheaties. They will be accused of communist conspiracy (it is un-American to lose) and suffer an assassination on the field. They will confess, repent, refuse, concede, escape, and go to jail. The events, in their tasteless, brutal, adolescent extension, become almost as embarrassing as the names of the characters who take part in them, yet you can’t look the other way and still read on.

Around the neck of the book is hung, like an albatross (why not?), one further allegory—the literary one. If American baseball ought not to be played as American life is lived, and American life ought not to be lived as if it were a game one is desperate to win, then American fiction, too, should not be written and regarded as if it were a prize fight or a fish, a match of machismos like Neapolitans on motorbikes. Sterling sentiments, but tarnished (for example) by being too long in the wrong mouth, because the connections, loud as a shout, are nevertheless thin as a whistle. The names of the teams, places, players, are boyish puns, a few “religious,” many “literary” (Gil Gamesh, Roland Agni), broadly descriptive in the Restoration manner (Frank Mazuma, for instance, Hot Ptah, Spit Baal), and the narrator’s unfortunate initials, W. S., unfortunately stand for Word Smith. “Call me Smitty,” the book begins, and at its end the narrator cannot refrain from bragging that he, alone, remains. But the animal that’s caught between the boundaries of these literary quips is a great white elephant.

The analogy between false attitudes toward literature, false attitudes toward sport, and false attitudes toward life is not only not established by such glib connections, it is badly damaged, because there is ultimately no one more serious at heart than Gulliver’s Swift or Candide’s Voltaire, and if you are going to expose greed, connivance, bad taste, moral imbecility, and so forth, you must, at all costs, avoid it (it’s called being tarred with your own brush), but Roth’s novel, like Our Gang and The Breast, commits errors like those attributed to Frank Mazuma, the fictional owner of the Kakoola Reapers, of whom he writes: “…Mazuma was a clown who invariably could be counted on to compromise himself by his own exceedingly bad taste….”

Accounting for it is another matter. Roth begins a scene: the one-armed outfielder is undressed before the press to prove he’s legitimately not all there. It is a scene, like many in this book, which opens brilliantly, and has a situation which deserves the savage writing it provokes. But Roth so increases the outrageousness of his account, so pointedly has the girl who must undress this recently acquired cripple shrink from him, blush, fumble with his buttons, exhibit every bias and vulgarity at once, that the reader’s attention is fatally turned toward the character of the imagination constructing it. There is, throughout The Great American Novel, an indecent indulgence in details which, the point having already been howled home as though a wolf were at its heels, have a savor left only for their author. There is a willfulness, too, a delight in shocking readers (not sexually this time) who are figures of authority here. There is the thumbed nose, the snigger, the catcall from across the street.

The disillusionments of childhood can last a lifetime, but the illusions of childhood, carried so far and over such rough terrain only to break like a blister when one has grown up, can embitter and warp a life. One can even come to hate the language which helped take the game away, and destroyed the very myths it made. Baseball once stirred the blood—as the Marines did, fireworks on the Fourth, a brassy march, a snapping flag. We spoke of them during the Thirties, too. No longer. They were never more than a tin of flat fifties. As for Moby Dick…if you make fun of the Gods you had better be one. And as for the great American novel itself…too much American fiction has already been written by small boys.

Letters

Roth’s Novel July 19, 1973

Roth’s Novel July 19, 1973

  1. 1

    The Great Canadian Novel was written last year by Harry Boyle.

  2. 2

    There are the journalists, naturally enough, who have appeared with works of soft sophistication like Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer or Roger Angell’s The Summer Game; there are personalized sporting stunts such as Plimpton has staged, exposures like Bouton’s Ball Four and I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, Brosnan’s The Long Season, Butkus’s Stop Action, Flood’s The Way It Was Kramer’s Instant Replay—books which drop the pants on football, baseball, hockey, racing, and so on, though football showed most—with Meggyesy’s Out of Their League, Parrish’s They Call It A Game, Gary Shaw’s Meat on the Hoof, and Leonard Schecter’s The Jocks; there were a few examinations of the politics of sport like Jack Scott’s The Athletic Revolution and Richard Mandell’s The Nazi Olympics, and apart from numerous paeans of praise for old coaches, and books by the middle-young on how they’ve won; there was at least one other sentimental venture, Jeannie Morris’s Brian Piccolo: A Short Season.

    In addition there have been an increasing number of at least half-serious novels: Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, DeLillo’s End Zone, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, Jenkins’s Semi-Tough, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, and Storey’s rugged bit about rugger, This Sporting Life (I am not familiar with the bulk of British novels on this subject). Peter Handke’s fine Austrian novel, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, is only distantly about the game. And so on, and so on….

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