Universal Baseball Association

In the next edition of my apparent series of reviews of books that are in one way or another about sports, I made my way through another novel that I’d heard a lot about and knew that I would probably like. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. was something I’d come across in a few different places. Books about baseball, books of an existential or philosophical nature, postmodern novels, important American novels of the twentieth century, there were many lists on which Coover’s novel might have appeared that I read and subsequently noted The Universal Baseball Association as a book I needed to read. Motived by finally reading A Fan’s Notes or perhaps because I finally got my hands on my Strat-O-Matic baseball board game from back home, or just because we’re beginning the Major League Baseball season, I felt the push and decided to finally read Coover’s most famous novel.

The novel focuses on the life of the Henry Waugh of the title, a man who has created a dice-based baseball game. But his creation hasn’t stopped there as he’s created a league of players, an entire history that has goes back many years, and the lives of these players that they lead when they aren’t on the baseball diamond. There are families and rivalries and traditions and events that exist beyond the boundaries of the novel. We first encounter Henry in the middle of one of these games, in which Damon Rutherford (who is the son of Brock Rutherford, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of this game he’s created) pitches a perfect game. Henry is filled with a certain kind of joy and elation in the wake of this accomplishment for one of his players, a player who has a pedigree within this game, and thus elects to pitch him again the day after pitching that perfect game. In that game, he ends up on the Extraordinary Occurrences chart and Damon is hit by a pitch and killed. The “death” of this fictitious player causes Henry’s life to go out of control and affects him much like a “real” death would and we witness the crumbling of Henry’s life as a result of this incident. He could just ignore the results of the game or make a change to prevent Damon from being struck and killed, but that would destroy the rules that bind the game and make it “real.”

That’s probably all we need in terms of recapping of the plot and background information because, perhaps not that surprising for a postmodern novel, it’s not the most important thing. The content of the novel, the characters and the conflicts and situations, are more of a device for Coover to explore themes and ideas as opposed to trying to depict something. While it’s not as absurd and surreal as some postmodern novels and somewhat concerned with realism, it’s not as “realistic” as other non-postmodern works. Regarding the thematic and conceptual aspects of the novel, one can see that there are very postmodern notions of what is real versus what is constructed and ontological questions present that arise from Henry and his life. Questions about free will and destiny emerge through Henry and his game, as well as issues of the divine and omnipotence as  Henry is in a godlike role with the world of the Universal Baseball Association that he has created and the ways in which his actions (at least that he is the one rolling the dice). There’s even some sound play going on here with J. Henry Waugh and YHWH, one of the Jewish names for God. As Wilfrid Sheed writes in his review of the book for the New York TimesBaseball and theology might seem to make strange bedfellows. But like a medieval schoolman who could make theology out of just about anything, Robert Coover has spliced the two together and produced a species of baseball scripture. His God is a lonely middle-aged accountant who has devised a dice-game that approximates the probabilities of baseball. That is all. Upon the void he projects the laws of chance, the percentages, what managers call, ‘the book.'”

What makes this such a great novel is the way that it is all of the aforementioned things as well as a depicting of what it is like to be passionate about sports or a game or something like that (in a somewhat similar vein to novels like High Fidelity or The Moviegoer). It is one of the great books that is “about” baseball. Well, let me clarify– it’s not about baseball in the same way as novels like The Natural or Shoeless Joe are about baseball, but baseball and the attendant fandom/fanaticism play a big part in the narrative of Coover’s novel. Postmodern novels are often overwhelmed by their postmodernness to the point where what is happening in the story is totally lost. The subject of the book itself does not matter as much as the theory or philosophy or concept that is being explored. The Universal Baseball Association, by contrast, does all those things and is still at its heart a book that’s about baseball. For someone who does not enjoy postmodernism as much as others but who loves baseball (and the baseball games like that which is depicted in the novel), this makes Coover’s novel both a palatable experience with the postmodern as well as one that reflects my experiences as an occasionally obsessive baseball fan. And while it is a novel, like so many of the best ones, that I feel like I need to read again another time to really pick up everything and appreciate it, I enjoyed that first reading and am looking forward to picking up The Universal Baseball Association again.

Some Notes on A Fan’s Notes

Fansnotes_cover When I was an undergraduate and getting started in the world of proper literary study and scholarship, I was pretty insufferable with my love and appreciation for Jack Kerouac and his novel On The Road. It was something akin to one’s first love. Well that’s not entirely true, because there were many, many books that I loved that I’d read before reading On The Road. But its effect upon me was great and it lead me down this path (writing, literary study, seeing the study at literature as something like a vocation, etc etc). And throughout college, my friends and professors would, with the best of intentions (at least some of the time, the actions of some people I knew did feel a bit disingenuous) suggest books I should look into given my feelings about Kerouac’s novel. One of those books, suggested by one of my favorite English professors, was Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel A Fan’s Notes. I picked up a copy from Bookpeople, the best bookstore in Austin, perhaps the best bookstore anywhere. And, in a sad admission of reality, it sat on my bookshelf. It sat in Austin. It sat in two apartments in Winston-Salem. It sat in Tallahassee. But after all those years of having it recommended to me, I finally decided it was time I read this book that I felt like I should.

It was a bit surprising that I hadn’t read this book as, for many reasons, it is one that I was perhaps destined to enjoy. It is a novel  (or perhaps we should say memoir, as the main character is named Exley and the subtitle to the novel is “A Fictional Memoir,” but I’ll talk more about that later) that is in part about the narrator’s interest in, obsession with, the NFL’s New York Giants of the 1950s and specifically their star running back Frank Gifford. As one who is obsessed with football, and sports in general, it was certainly something that resonated with me and to which I could relate in much the same way as I did to Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch documenting his life as an Arsenal fan.

But if Exley’s book were just a documentation of what it meant to be a fan of sports, to worship an athlete, to find something in fandom, it would be something that was nice and fun to read but that would be it. It is the ways in which the novel goes beyond that makes A Fan’s Notes much more interesting and why those comparisons to Kerouac are a bit apropos. Quoting from the New York Times‘ review of the novel in 1968, John Sisk writes “the book deserves comparison with the baseball novels of Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris. It is not about pro football in the sense that George Plimpton’s ‘Paper Lion’ is, yet it is inconceivable without the passionate experience of that sport–that ‘island of directness in a world of circumspection.'” Football and its attendant fandom plays a large and central role in the novel, and yet it is not just about that. As a depiction of depression and mental illness, I found it to be profoundly affecting. Spending time in and out of psychiatric institutions, being subjected to electroshock therapy, Exley depicts both the experience of being in those institutions along with the feeling and experience of depression, making me think of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.

But what lies at the heart of this novel are two issues that have often been the central subject of great literature and art– the American Dream and its viability as well as questions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Exley questions the possibility of realizing the American Dream that we are presented from all sides in our modern American culture as well as wondering whether one can find some kind of satisfaction in those things that make it up. In his search for a career and employment, Exley questions whether or not this is worth it and whether achieving that “dream” will bring any kind of happiness and fulfillment. In that regard, the comparison to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seen in the blurb on the back cover from Newsday is profoundly apropos. Exley is shining a light upon the things that we have been presented, as a society, that will make men feel fulfilled and happy and the hollowness at the heart of those things. Exley also investigates masculinity and what exactly that entails, particularly in his depictions of relationships and commentary regarding sex, though much like how Gatsby links romance with questions of the American Dream so too does A Fan’s Notes though in a much more realistic way. Thinking about other books of that time that addressed these issues such as Percy’s The Moviegoer and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road amongst others, A Fan’s Notes stands among those as a strong diagnosis of this malaise that affected those living at that time.

What separates or distinguishes A Fan’s Notes from those aforementioned novels is its claim to “real life,” its status as a “fictional memoir” with the memoir part being very foregrounded. Exley is a character in his own novel and it is a book that, whether he intended or not, makes some kind of claim to being a depiction of something that “actually happened.” I enjoyed this quality and, as one who is interested in memoir and creative nonfiction, found it to give the novel a deeper and richer character. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not the story is true, it doesn’t mean that the claims it makes are somehow invalid, but  as a work that is or presents itself as memoir-ish, it provides and interesting model for what one can attempt to do with the memoir/creative nonfiction genre.

Based on what I’ve written, you can tell I did rather like A Fan’s Notes. I felt it to be akin to many of the novels that I love, many of them mentioned in this post. But what Exley does and how he engages with this big ideas that so much American fiction ends up grappling with is what sets it apart and makes it unique, both in terms of its status as a “fictional memoir” as well as in the more “down to earth” or “gritty” way these ideas are explored. It’s even interesting to think about this novel and the way in which it uses and depicts fandom in the context of our own time, where being a fan has become an even greater and more elaborate thing and when we’ve become much more removed and disengaged like Exley throughout the novel. This gives the novel a greater resonance and defines it as something that should be read by today’s audiences.