A Novel Idea
I usually don’t read novels about sports. Why should I? There are so many real-life stories out there begging to be read.
When it doesn’t involve pick and rolls and offensive line strategy, I love fiction and I was craving it after months of reading nonfiction for this column and other publications. So, I grabbed Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., the last sports-related novel that I remember wanting to read so I could satisfy a craving and a column requirement.
Only one of those two things happened.
Awkward accountant Henry Waugh is not just the proprietor of an elaborate fantasy baseball league; he’s the creator of a parallel world where new players start careers, old players retire, and everyone dies. These men have personalities and histories and even political affiliations, all created by an obsessed Henry. The wonderful wrinkle is that Henry is a flawed God, playing out the games not by decree, but through three dice and a series of charts. Henry is simply the person who has created the game and follows the rules.
Two worlds are thrown into disarray when beloved rookie pitcher Damon Rutherford is killed during a game. Henry, who loved Rutherford, is distraught, while the players (especially the old-timers) mourn the loss of a promising career cut short. But both players and the proprietor start to question what they’re doing. An unraveling Henry considers other entertainment options, even though he’s completed fifty-five prior seasons of his storied league. As one player thinks to himself, long after Rutherford’s death: “Beyond each game, he sees another, and yet another, in endless and hopeless succession. He hits a ground ball to third, is thrown out. Or he beats the throw. What difference, in the terror of eternity, does it make?”
Clearly, the book deals with a theme bigger than sports: the factors that control the universe. It’s not that I don’t mind dealing with these important themes, but not when they become inescapable or burdensome. Reading UBA reminded me of those ponderous, theme-heavy books I read in high school English class, where I spent so much time looking for points to bring up in discussions that it obliterated my enjoyment of whatever I was reading. Also, Coover’s kinetic, otherworldly writing style eventually wore me down—the last forty pages were a chore—and prevented me from knowing Henry, who arrives pre-packaged as a sad sack. I was dying to know what motivates a man to create his own baseball league as opposed to just reading the box scores in the sports section.
Apparently, Coover excels in “magic realism,” which would explain the book’s twists and turns and why I wasn’t too keen on his approach since the novelists I read usually don’t go through the looking glass. What we have here is a case of me not getting along with a writer’s style, a cordial “it's not you, it's me” situation.
Though Coover and I didn’t hit it off, it’s not the end of the world. It’s okay to take risks with your book choices. A bad decision is quickly redeemed by a trip to the library, a friend’s recommendation, or a visit to a website like this one. I’ll keep taking the occasional chance, which could change my life. Maybe one day I’ll be writing about the wonderful world of sports-themed science fiction. Like Henry Waugh rolling the dice, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s easy to see how a person could get hooked.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.