The Sporting News

The Great American Novel

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

Philip Roth
Philip Roth; drawing by David Levine

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…

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