The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
I finished reading Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s novel The Celebrant last week for my baseball literature class. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the book at first, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.
This novel presents a mashup of true baseball history with a fictional plot. As he chronicles some of the major games in the career of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, Greenberg also introduces us to the fictional character Jackie Kapp. Jackie Kapp comes from a family of Jewish immigrants that owns a jewelry-making business. Jackie is a Giants fan who comes to idolize Mathewson after watching Mathewson’s first no-hitter in July 1901, while on the road in St. Louis. To commemorate the achievement, Jackie designs a ring for Mathewson. Mathewson is so impressed by the ring that he refers to Jackie as “Master Kapp.”
The story also draws in two of Jackie’s brothers, Eli and Arthur, who are also active members of the family business. Eli is a free-spending gambler, as we learn right off the bat (no pun intended) when he bets on Mathewson’s success all through that first no-hitter. Arthur, meanwhile, is the complete opposite of Eli: a no-nonsense, unsympathetic, money-and-numbers-driven businessman. Throughout the novel, we see Jackie somewhat caught between the two brothers, understanding Arthur’s aims while sympathizing more with Eli’s free-spirited approach.
The primary focus of the story, however, is on the progression of the careers of both Christy Mathewson and Jackie Kapp. Both careers take off gloriously, with Mathewson’s gem of a no-hitter leading and Kapp’s creation of a magnificent ring that would, at least in this story, lead to the proliferation of commemoration rings for championship teams. Both men have the utmost respect for the craft of the other, and they spend much of the novel admiring each other’s work from afar. Jackie Kapp is the intended reference for the novel’s title — he is “the celebrant” of baseball — although it might be argued that Mathewson is, in his own way, a celebrant of Kapp’s work as well.
As time goes on, however, both men experience a steady decline in their careers. Jackie grows increasingly frustrated by the commercialization of his jewelry. Mathewson’s baseball career ends with some disappointing games, and his final role with the game is shrouded in disappointment over the 1919 World Series scandal.
At various points in the book, Greenberg’s language becomes overwrought with detail, which sometimes makes for a laborious read. This same detail also provides for some delightful moments in the novel, especially when Greenberg describes the play-by-play of some key games. Overall, though, my favorite characteristic of this book is in the idea of a celebrant in the world of baseball. While his obsession with Mathewson’s career is borderline creepy, Jackie Kapp has a deep and genuine appreciation and love for the game and for the performance of his idol. He and Mathewson both strive to live their lives and pursue their careers according to the ideals they have in relation to their respective worlds.
While I wouldn’t call it the best baseball novel that I have read, I certainly do have an appreciation for The Celebrant.