January 6, 2007

NEARLY THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL:

Take Me Into the Ballgame (JOHN THORN, 7/02/06, NY Times)

One novelist to recognize baseball's fundamental unreality - and to my mind the only one to mount a serious challenge to Lardner in creating a vivid and unique baseball-playing literary character while hurdling the philosophical tripwire - is Robert Coover in his 1968 novel, "Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop."

Literary critics have sniffed out the allegorical hints in Coover's tale of a man obsessed with a single-player baseball-themed table-game of his own devising, in which the players are controlled by rolls of the dice. Waugh's name can be condensed to "JHWH," the transliterated name of God; and although he created the rules and casts the die, each roll of the bones brings to him, to his players and to the reader an illusion of free will. But the simple symbolism is mere sleight of hand, a misdirection from the universal human longing to control one's own small world - to inhabit a blissful state without instinctual frustration, without interaction with potentially disruptive external objects, without time, and within something greater than oneself. As Waugh tells a bar girl after his deist dice roll has given his pitcher a perfect game: "Think of it . . . to do a thing so perfectly that, even if the damn world lasted forever, nobody could ever do it better. . . . In a way, you know, it's even sad somehow, because, well, it's done, and all you can hope for after is to do it a second time."

What Coover may have viewed as a retreat to the womb we today, with our play space diminished from a ball field to a computer screen, call fantasy baseball. In his version of what has transformed a pastime into an obsession, the players generate statistics, a long season, a storybook finish, a game within a game, and a world within a world. Today, millions of desktop magnates preside over teams of their own construction - the statistics are what matter, no humans need apply. In its dark, unreal loneliness Coover's baseball novel is, for 21st-century readers of fiction, the heights, or depths, of realism. He cuts deep into the cake.


Coover loses control of his own narrative as the book progresses, after a brilliant set-up. The book begs to be made into a movie though.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 6, 2007 1:00 PM
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