Thursday, May 24, 2018

RIP, Philip Roth

Oh, to be a center fielder, a center fielder -- and nothing more.
Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint

Philip Roth died this week, and even though I stopped buying his new works years ago and haven't really revisited the older ones in some time, that news hit home. I have the doubtless erroneous notion that he's one of those writers that anybody serious about the craft has some familiarity with, and I certainly read him heavily in my high school/college/post college years.

The Washington Post news service provided an obit on Roth that would fill more than a full page of a newspaper. What struck me is that even such an extensive accounting of his career didn't even mention The Great American Novel, which is the Roth book that comes to my baseball-addled mind most readily.

Trying to sum up TGAN in a sentence or two, particularly without having read it in a couple decades, is a challenge, but here goes: The Ruppert Mundys, once the power of the Patriot League, have surrendered their home stadium to the war effort and are playing the season on the road with a sad sack roster of ne're-do-wells and malcontents. Ultimately their efforts to rise above their lowly status end with the collapse of the league and the flushing of its very existence from the memories of all but the aged sportswriter telling the tale.

All the players bear the names of pantheistic dieties: Ptah, Baal, Agni, Gil Gamesh. Echoes of genuine baseball history figure in the fantastic tale -- for example, the outfielder who grew up without fences and thus crashes repeatedly into walls recalls the career of Pistol Pete Rieser. 

Roth even appears to forecast the rise of sabermetrics by having a young, emphatically nonathletic, Jewish genius take control of the Mundys. 

TGAN clearly isn't Roth's most important or most popular work, but it's a fun one. I took note Wednesday that at least three of the baseball writers I follow on Twitter mentioned it (athough one of them said he has never been able to finish it.) And I intend to revisit the book sometime this summer.

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