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Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Great American Novel

The Great American Novel
By Philip Roth
4/5 stars

"The Great American Novel" is a baseball story but it's as far from "Field of Dreams" as one can get.  There's no schmaltzy father-son bonding or any patriotic nonsense about how important baseball is to America.  While Roth's novel does insinuate that baseball is a part of American life, what it shows is that baseball is largely a reflection of how foolish America can be.

Most of the book takes place in 1943, when the Port Ruppert, New Jersey Mundys are forced out of their home stadium to make room for soldier barracks.  Instead of finding a new park, like at a local high school or college, the Mundys are forced to play every single game on the road.

Making things worse the Mundys are a terrible team.  Not even terrible like "The Bad News Bears" or lovable losers like the Chicago Cubs.  No, the Mundys are irredeemably awful.  Their lineup features a French-Canadian who doesn't speak any English, a 50-year-old third baseman, a 14-year-old second baseman, a one-legged catcher, a first baseman who only plays well if he's drunk, and the only good player, an 18-year-old whose father pays the Mundys to take him to teach his arrogant son some humility.  Their pitching staff is even worse, featuring mostly elderly men, including a Mexican who rolls his pitches to home plate to save himself some pain.  When they do make a trade, they trade a one-armed outfielder for a dwarf pitcher.

Needless to say the Mundys do terribly.  So terribly their manager can't stand to look at them and instead goes to local churches to pray.  The only time when they do well is when one player spikes their food, which considering this book is from 1973 was rather prophetic about the steroids era 25-30 years later.

But the Mundys are undone, as is the Patriot League they play in, not by their terrible play on the field.  Rather they are done in by misplaced patriotism that creates a Red Scare years before McCarthy.

The Mundys and their league are a reflection of all of America's faults:  the fear, the greed, the arrogance, and the downright stupidity are just as much a part of American life as baseball and apple pie.

While most of the book is entertaining, the beginning and end are not all that good.  The lengthy prologue especially will prove daunting to readers.  Most of that entails the narrator (Word "Smitty" Smith, who used to be a beat reporter for the Mundys) trying to get baseball to remember the Mundys and Patriot League and discussing the concept of "The Great American Novel" with Ernest Hemingway.  But especially the first two pages of Smitty discussing the importance of alliteration might have the casual reader putting the book away.  As for the end, the Red Scare idea gets to be a little bit overdone and really makes you question how dumb some people can be.

Another word of warning is that like other Roth novels, it features some sexual humor that some readers might find offensive.  In particular is a scene where two Mundy players visit a very unique brothel.  Which again makes this a far cry from some other baseball novels.

Overall, despite its faults, I really enjoyed this very different take on baseball and America.  For another baseball book that isn't all happy or schmaltzy, check out "Battle Creek" by Scott Lassiter.

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