Monday, October 26, 2009

Book review: "The Great American Novel"

I took enough time off from playoff baseball and the Balloon Boy saga to finish Philip Roth's wonderfully complex book, "The Great American Novel." It's perhaps one of the most peculiar, hilarious and fascinating baseball novels out there.

"The Great American Novel" is told from the perspective of a disgraced journalist named Word Smith ("Fella name a' Smith, first name a' Word"). 'Smitty,' who claims to be an advisor to presidents, a man who plays cards with Popes and a friend of Ernest Hemingway (later on in the review series we'll talk more about Hemingway's presence in baseball novels), decides he's going to write the 'great American novel' about the history of the Patriot League, a baseball league he says existed until just shortly after World War II. After a lengthy prologue (46 pages!) about Smitty's dubious attempt to get a Patriot League star into the Baseball Hall of Fame, "The Great American Novel" is exactly that: a history of the Patriot League.

Most particularly, the book focuses on an East Coast team called the Ruppert Mundys, which hails from the town of Port Ruppert and has a storied history and a passionate fan base called the Rupe-it Rootas. But when World War II breaks out, the team's owners, the Mundy brothers, allow the War Department to use the home stadium as a military base, making the Mundys a permanent road team for the 1943 season.

We're introduced to all the Mundy players, including a one-armed outfielder, a one-legged catcher, ancient pitchers, a fourteen-year-old second baseman and a center fielder who may just be the best ballplayer on the whole damn planet. And we also meet other characters around the league, including three particularly fascinating team owners. Frank Mazuma is a tireless promoter (think Charlie Finley on steroids) who hires midgets and - gasp! - African Americans to play on his team. Ellis Goldberg, a tight-fisted, stereotypical Jew who is hated by all his players, has a prepubescent son named Isaac, an early-day sabermatrician who would make Bill James proud. And then there's Angela Whittling Trust, who inherited her team from her late husband. She rattles on about the "enemies of America" and believes the President of the United States to be one of them (sound familiar?). Although she rails against Communists during WWII, her dialogue could almost have been lifted directly from Fox News circa 2009:

...We are dealing with an enemy far more cunning and insidious than that deluded psychopath [Hitler] out to conquer the world with bombs and bullets. No, even while this war rages on against the Germans and the Japs, the other war against us has already begun, the invisible war, the silent assault upon the very fabric that holds us together as a nation.

As you can see, Roth's book, written in 1973, is decades before its time. But I wouldn't be surprised if he was influenced by other baseball writers. The story of Patriot League pitcher Gil Gamesh sounds an awful lot like Jock Casey from Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop," written a few years earlier. And the informal style of Smitty is reminiscent of Henry Wiggen from Mark Harris' delightful series, which began in the 1950s.

Roth is influential, too, not only in his baseball books but in his whole library of groundbreaking fiction.

"The Great American Novel," although it fails to live up to its lofty title, is a fine baseball book from one of the authors of our time.

And, it's one of the funniest books I've ever read.

--Matt Kelsey


  1. If you're monitoring this site, maybe you can help me with a few of questions:

    1. who wins the game where Gamesh hits the umpire in the throat? It's supposed to be for the pennant (somehow, there's a 1/2 game difference between the teams on the last day of the season), but the Gamesh-umpire conflict takes over to the apparent exclusion of the question, "who won the pennant"? (Hit batsman with runner on 3d, runner doesn't score.)

    2. After play resumes where the ump wasn't watching for the final strike, why does the leadoff hitter come up? He's described as "the best leadoff" hitter in the league, so it seems unlikely he's pinch-hitting in a pennant-deciding game, but since 26 outs had been recorded and no one had reached base, why isn't the 9 hitter still up?

    3. How does the World Series work with 3 teams? (He's not obliged to explain this, I suppose, so it's not a "mistake" as I believe the first two to be, but it does cry out for an answer.

    Assuming there's no explanation for these, I'm surprised they eluded someone who is as careful a craftsman and as keen a baseball fan as Roth appears to be. (Not surprised they got past his editors, who as likely as not are indifferent to the game.)

    Anyway, if you or any of your readers can explain, I'd be much obliged.

  2. To correct my own mistake, it was a hit umpire, not hit batsman, at point 1. So the ball is dead, no run scored. Even if it was a wild pitch (which seems wrong), the score could, at worst, be tied (assuming Gamesh's team had only a one-run lead: I recall only that they were winning.)