A novel about poverty in America, about poverty programs, about the New Left, about Welfare, about the Lower East Side—my neighborhood, or as much of a neighborhood as I’ve ever had—The Bag, the novel that prophesied the Columbia uprising. And the bearded guy on the back cover looks East Side. We go into the Welfare center and I can see right away he knows what he’s talking about, he’s been there. You can see that in the details. He knows how the people talk, the workers, the clients; in fact the details keep accumulating—and accumulating, and accumulating. What is this, Zola? Dreiser? This is evidently a book that assumes nothing, not even the obvious.
Meanwhile there’s something else to contend with: a thick impasto of words muddying the realistic detail, an overlay of Joycean word-jamming and Faulknerian run-on. If you want to write a naturalistic novel, it might be better to stick to naturalistic style. This impression grows stronger as the novel recurringly seems to consist of a subject draped in language. But at last in a scene where a big black woman, a client, flips in the Welfare center, and is beaten to a pulp by the cops in front of her terrified children, the book explodes into life.
Now The Bag is rolling in high gear: a humorous, vicious mother-ranking contest between two black half-brothers; and then a strikingly truthful scene about a poor writer at a literary lunch with his agent and an editor—the temptations of the luxe restaurant, the writer’s misery, his inability to say the right thing, finding it impossible to eat and getting a little too loaded.
We move into the Lower East Side: the slumlord, and his Puerto Rican, ex-juvenile-delinquent pusher agent—Faust and Ismael, Faust the concentration camp escapee, a slumlord who undergoes a conversion and conceives a poverty project that will salvage the slums of the country, Ismael the pusher, the embittered loner, waiting to lead us all into the apocalypse. Here the symbolism gets a bit heavy, the characters unconvincing, the writing flabby. There are vaguely surreal scenes, unconvincing revolutionary dialogue, and here and there the writing breaks into prose-poetry—some of which comes off and some of which does not. So much is stylistically sloppy that I begin to wonder whether I can trust what the man says. This is a social worker’s East Side, or a journalist’s—a freak scene, a panic scene, all catastrophe and violence and rock-bottom squalor: unlivable. It isn’t the East Side I know, and not only because I’m white.
It occurs to me that The Bag is a rather hysterical book—still, this is, after all, the hysteria we live with now, the hysteria of people who fear and hate one another singly, in groups, and in complicated, nightmarish coalitions. But hysteria heaped on hysteria—who needs it? Unless of course you’ve got an itch for the apocalypse, and that is exactly what this book seems to have. It is in this sense, and not in any petty predictions about Columbia, that The Bag has the quality of prophecy. The book seems to say that we have come to an overwhelming moment in our collective national suicide when, after teetering on the ledge for too long, we find it better after all to make the collective jump and get it over with. I would guess it is just that hysteria of the apocalypse that accounts for the spastic style of this book, the style of a man who no longer wants to think, and is in a hurry to get it over with.
The central figure in The Bag is a writer who becomes a Welfare worker to escape the false position of serving a social order he despises. He then finds himself, as a Welfare worker, helping to bail out that very same system. Inevitably he then becomes a client of the Welfare system for which he works. After being in the false position of a Welfare client trying to collect his dole from the system, he is at last cast adrift and begins to think, act, and talk like a black slum dweller. But then we have an intellectual racing around the streets burning and looting with the riot crowd—also a false position.
In the course of the writer’s decline, he becomes the lover of the most troublesome of his welfare-clients, the same big black woman who was beaten to a pulp by the cops at the beginning of the book. In a brutal, joyous scene, he makes her suck his cock in order to defeat her hatred which is the slave’s revenge on the master. But that isn’t all: “There required only the final degradation to absolve myself”—and he decides he has to eat her dirty cunt as well. “Degrade yourself and elevate yourself.” He embraces “this ultimate punishment” with gusto, thus absolving himself of the master’s guilt toward the slave. This is all splendid in its repulsiveness, and is probably why one critic has compared Yurick to Dostoevsky. But this is self-degradation without the theology and to me it sounds like perverse-not perverted-masochism. The guilt involved here is not spiritual, but social; the answer to it, obviously, is not indulgence of self-degradation but social amelioration. This current of masochism carries through to the end of the book, and I’m never thoroughly convinced that it’s under control.
Yurick seems to be saying, destroy yourself so you can live, but also—though this isn’t entirely clear in the book—self-destruction can be the final cop-out: in a phony and unworkable system where all bags are phony and unworkable, so is that one. And so, the book implies, is the revolution bag. The Bag’s essential statement is that only the relentlessly approaching apocalypse is real. Maybe. Or maybe that view is just another form of self-destruction.
I like baseball, or used to before it moved to the West Coast. Robert Coover won a first novel award with his last book and here he is on the back jacket of The Universal Baseball Association looking like a sharp-eyed Rookie of the Year. Of course, it was Malamud who staked out the mythology of the diamond in The Natural. But might there not be as much inexhaustible magic in such figures as Pete Reiser, Ducky Medwick, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio as there is in Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp? It soon becomes apparent that Coover is interested in more than baseball. Concepts like heroism, excellence, perfection, are quickly suggested. The ingenious baseball game in Coover’s novel is full of cosmic allusions. J. Henry Waugh, its proprietor and inventor, an aging loner in his apartment, throws dice that not only determine imaginary hits and runs but also life and death. For the baseball players of whom he is the creator, the fall of the dice is the pronouncement of fate. Between throws of the dice, Henry imagines the remaining details: the personalities of his players, attitudes toward what fate dictates, the significance of events. Henry imagines the players imagining the meaning of their lives while at the same time he and we know that those lives signify nothing but the outcome of blind luck—or to put it another way, men are free to invent what spiritual meaning they can for a destiny about which they know nothing.
Henry is the Cosmic Accountant of all this—he keeps the scores but he does not intervene. If he intervenes, it is no longer a game; it would then simply be the projection of his own wish-fulfillment fantasies. We have to stick to reality or the exercise of the imagination becomes meaningless, a delusion. The relations among Henry, destiny, and the baseball players are similar to the relations among Zeus, destiny, and the Homeric heroes. And the careers of the heroes here carry a similar freight. Their destinies are to make the game mean something, to make Henry’s life and living in general mean something, by showing that within a totally random universe excellence and even perfection are possible. All this is suggested with economy, clarity, and verve.
But then fate intervenes: Henry’s dice dictate that Damon Rutherford, a brilliant rookie on his way to pitching a perfect game, is fatally beaned. With that pitch the game falls apart—the players’, Henry’s, and, I think, the author’s. For the players this unjustifiable death saps the game’s validity. A baseball immortal has been wiped out for no reason. He has become a “dead immortal,” and The Universal Baseball Association has now caught up with history. We and Henry are faced with a random, pointless universe. Subsequently Henry is engaged in constructing a myth about the event of Damon’s death that will redeem the Association, and I suppose, ourselves.
Baseball has already been made to carry a heavy cargo in this book but now it gets heavier. With the plausibility of the actual game lost, the philosophical freight begins to take over. Mythy echoes and allusions fall thick as snow. The main action consists of philosophical problem-solving in which we discover such truths as “that perfection wasn’t a thing, a closed moment, a static fact but process, yes, and the process was transformation”; and that life is “not a trial…It’s not even a lesson. It’s just what it is.” The book descends into what I would call pseudo-myth, an attempt to synthesize one’s own version of traditional myth and impose it on contemporary experience as if it explained something (Malamud’s The Natural is not completely free of this tendency either). The baseball players begin to get involved with things like the “Great Atonement Legend” in their attempts to rationalize the death of Damon. From myth the novel flowers into outright theology. It begins to sound like this: “Beyond each game, he sees another, and yet another, in endless and hopeless succession. He hits a ground ball to third, is thrown out. Or he beats the throw. What difference, in the terror of eternity, does it make?” Or again, as a bit of baseball dialogue:
“He thirsts for the True Church,” wry Raspberry smiles.
“And what of your fans, Gringo?” asks Skeeter Parsons.
“Mother can smother in her own vat of fat,” Gringo grumbles.
This is a book that starts fast and ends in a slow creep, and I’m talking about the whole second half of the novel. Coover has control, but no power. By comparison Yurick reminds me of Rex Barney: he’s got all the stuff but he’s not able to do much with it. I prefer Rex Barney. The Universal Baseball Association is finally no more than a clever game.
March 13, 1969