A few weeks ago, I finished Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. It pains me that it’s taken this long to get around to writing about it, but work and school assignments took priority. But the end of the semester brings with it a little extra time — for a little while, at least.
Going into this book, I knew that baseball was a huge part of the plot, but I never expected the satire and the hilarity that
ensued throughout the novel. The book, which takes place during the 1940s, revolves around the Ruppert Mundys, a baseball team in the long-forgotten Patriot League. The narrator, “Word” Smith (a.k.a. “Smitty”), once traveled with the team writing columns about its exploits, and now remains the only person in modern-day America who remembers anything about them. All memory of the Patriot League, once the third Major League, has vanished from the American consciousness in a convoluted mess of a communist conspiracy. The Ruppert Mundys, who had no real home ballpark as a result of the war effort, were the Patriot League’s worst team — a mishmash of eccentric players, from a fourteen-year-old second baseman to a one-armed outfielder to a midget pitcher.
Throughout its history, the Mundys also produced its share of memorable players. Gil Gamesh, for example, is a pitcher destined to break records all around Major League Baseball. He was also the only player who ever literally tried to kill the umpire. Roland Agni, meanwhile, is a .370 hitter and a perfect physical specimen with a tremendous conscience.
Over the course of the 1943 season, the Mundys manage to lose 120 of 154 games. The one bright spot in their otherwise-disastrous season is an eleven-game winning streak fueled by Wheaties, which were altered by a Jewish teenage genius who bet on the team surreptitiously. By the end of the tale, we learn that the entirety of the Patriot League has been infiltrated by communists. Following an investigation and series of trials by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the league is dissolved and soon-forgotten.
All in all, the novel proves itself to be funny and crass — I literally laughed out loud at various points — and certainly not grade school reading material. Nevertheless, Roth’s prose is infiltrating, poetic, and engaging, revealing his ability to turn a phrase just as easily as he can crack a misogynistic or racist joke. This is not to call Roth a bigot. If anything, his writing plays off and reveals the true inner thoughts and perceptions of the average American male during the time period in which the novel takes place.
More importantly, the book reveals in no uncertain terms that Roth knows baseball. He describes the game with a fluency worthy of a baseball historian, and he does so in an intriguingly witty fashion. The Great American Novel may not necessarily live up to the title as being the “great American novel” compared to, say, Huckleberry Finn, but it does merit at least a read-through by baseball’s fans.