Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Swing Batter Swing: Baseball Novels

A piece about baseball novels for The Globe and Mail’s “Three for Thought” department in the books section; published in March 2004, I think.

With the launch of the new major league baseball season this week, several hundred players will set out on this year’s campaign in a spirit of great hope. For most of them, that hope will be slowly crushed over the next six months.

The bards of baseball tend to sing of the game’s ties to tradition, its contemplative pace, its verdant summertime outfields – it presents itself as the most idyllic of the major sports. But with a long and grinding season and a relatively exclusive playoff format, it’s also the one most spiked with disappointment and frustration.

So it’s no surprise that it holds a special appeal for novelists. There are other reasons, too: the game is rich in lore and legend, and its status as “America’s pastime,” though by now more theoretical than actual, lends a sense of larger import to even the most straightforward ballpark yarn. Some authors exploit that resonance for sentimental fantasy (now batting, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe), while others favour a naturalistic tone (on deck, Mark Harris’s Henry Wiggen series). The most haunting baseball novels, though, are the ones that play off the game’s mythology while acknowledging the dread that hangs over the diamond.

Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952) is the story of Roy Hobbs, a 34-year-old rookie driven by dreams of riches and stardom. Roy first tried to make the big leagues as a young pitcher, only to be shot by a mysterious woman on the eve of his tryout. After a 15-year interregnum of drifting and odd jobs, he’s reinvented himself as a slugger and found a slot with the fictional New York Knights. Despite Roy’s age, his gifts are astounding: in his first big-league at-bat, he literally knocks the cover off the ball.

The Natural was Malamud’s first book, and its slightly surreal air prefigures his later work, as does its preoccupation with frustration. Roy is furious in pursuing all that he feels entitled to – baseball glory, money, and a beautiful but aloof society woman. But though he becomes a phenomenon, leading the Knights to a showdown for the pennant, his appetite is never sated. In one dreamlike scene, his hunger is made literal, as his epic gluttony at a team banquet puts him in the hospital.

At the novel’s climax, the pennant race comes down to a single game, which comes down to a single at-bat featuring our hero – Malamud is unabashed in exploiting the clichés of sports suspense. The crucial difference, though, is that his payoff offers no uplift, only a bellow of despair. In the last sentence of the novel, Roy weeps “many bitter tears.” Here and throughout the book, Malamud pitches with more force than finesse, but his raw prose is a fitting expression of angry ambition and failed promise.

As a prose stylist, Philip Roth is a power pitcher who also boasts pinpoint control. In The Great American Novel (Vintage, 1973), he’s at his funniest and most manic; where Malamud is bitter, Roth is giddy with satiric possibilities. Here he’s invented the Patriot League, which once co-existed alongside the American and the National but was disbanded after the Second World War, its records destroyed and its history suppressed. Much of the action centres on the 1943 season, when the Ruppert Mundys of Port Ruppert, New Jersey, are forced to play all their games on the road after the government leases their home ballpark as a soldiers’ camp. But the setup is really just an excuse for Roth to get busy with tall tales and comic characters. Like Gil Gamesh, a star pitcher (of proud Babylonian background, of course) who’s banished from the league after wounding an umpire with a deadly throw, and who reappears 10 years later as a Soviet spy. Or Frank Mazuma, a carnival barker of a team owner whose stunts include signing a midget as a pinch hitter. (He evokes real-life owner Bill Veeck, who once did the same thing.) Or Isaac Ellis, a teenage genius who’s dying to manage a big league team according to his own convoluted mathematical principles.

The book’s narrator, aged sportswriter Word Smith, claims to be writing a historical expose, but sees himself as competing with The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the like. Hence the “great American novel” conceit, which allows Roth to work in plenty of writerly in-jokes as well as baseball ones – he lampoons everything from Hemingway’s “The Killers” to Melville’s Typee. The literary canon motif, beautifully captured in the idea of a forgotten major league, also pokes fun at baseball’s own high opinion of itself. And while nothing in The Great American Novel is to be taken seriously, Roth finds improbable poignance in the plight of the luckless Ruppert Mundys, a once-mighty team now made up of misfits and losers, wandering a world that rewards only winners.

Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (Plume, 1968) is also about an imaginary league. Henry Waugh, a 56-year-old low-level accountant with no family and few friends, is devoted to a virtual baseball game of his own devising, in which the roll of three dice determines every play. Henry plays entire seasons by himself this way – when the novel opens, his UBA is in Year LVI – and to give meaning to the statistics he amasses, he imagines player biographies, team and league histories, even off-the-field political intrigues.

Coover’s premise presages the explosion of fantasy leagues, and more than the other authors considered here, he ponders the fan’s place in the baseball cosmos. In one very funny scene, Henry invites Lou, an oafish co-worker, to play his dice game with him. Lou grasps none of the game’s grace or subtleties; his response is the bored incomprehension of the uninitiate. The density of Henry’s dream world, though, will make even a baseball aficionado feel like an outsider: with its babble of unfamiliar player names, the novel is deliberately disorienting. And while the Roth and Malamud books are both full of allusions to actual players and events, Coover’s novel throws no such winks at the reader.

Instead, we get deeper into Henry’s obsession, into the ever more elaborate – and creepy and distasteful – scenarios he invents. The eerie final chapter appears to represent Henry’s final surrender to psychosis, but also evokes our own complicity, as we’re asked to consider the needs we project onto the players on the diamond. Happy thoughts indeed for Opening Day.

No comments: