The Great American Novel

Philip Roth

Cover of The Great American Novel

Rank: B+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Summer, 2006

Author Name: Philip Roth

Review: The Great American Novel is not the great American novel, but it is a great American novel.

As it happens, this past August (2006), I was really in the mood to read a book about baseball by one of the mid-twentieth century American humorists (you know, Joseph Heller, Charles Portis, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Kurt Vonnegut—one of those dudes). As luck would have it, I was at the ol’ library book sale up at Chico with my esteemed associate Will “Shake, Rattle and Rollspeare” McPherson when I came across The Great American Novel by our man Roth. A dollar-fifty later, I had my baseball book.

Anyone who is both a fan of sports and a fan of books has had the experience of reading a book whose theme is sports and being disappointed by the general lack of sports. Sure, there may be some sports action in the beginning, but then it usually boils down to characters, and what they’re doing outside of the game. Baseball fans should be relieved to know that there is quite a bit of baseball in The Great American Novel—and statistics. (Is there anything sweeter to the ear of a sports fan than the word “statistics”, or its little brother “stats”? If there is, I don’t want to hear about it!) So, rest assured, if you like American writing and baseball, this is a good one to pick up.

Now, as to the actual story, current readers (2006) may find the topic surprisingly topical. The story follows a fictional team called the Ruppert Mundys in a fictional baseball league: the Patriot League. (For those really interested in the sport aspect, the way I suspect this worked is the American League, National League and Patriot League all crowned a champion. These teams then competed in a round robin, possibly double-elimination series, and the two survivors would play each other for the World Series. This isn’t spelled out in the book, but I expect that’s how it would work.) The reader follows the Mundys and their players throughout the 1943 season, and mid-way through the 1944 season, before the team—and the Patriot League—collapses. The collapse centers on the Ruppert Mundys, who are forced to become a permanent road team for the 1943 season, their stadium leased out for military use during WWII—not unlike the New Orleans Saints (NFL) and New Orleans Hornets (NBA), made homeless by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the end, it all turns out to be a communist plot to destroy the Patriot League, major league baseball, and, as a result, America. The latter half of the novel is devoted almost exclusively to a reinvention of McCarthy-era politics and the Red Scare, which, without too much modification, reads a lot like the current administration’s terrorism scare tactics and liberal-baiting. It makes one wonder just how much has changed since the 40s and 50s (or 1973, when the book was written).

Since this is Roth, the book remains funny throughout, and the mythic quality of the baseball in the book comes through perfectly. Though I think it actually suffered from being too short (not enough time to develop all the characters in the book), and the names are atrocious (get ready, here comes a list: pitcher Gil Gamesh [The Epic of Gilgamesh], Frank Mazuma [daughter named Doubloon; owner of the Greenbacks], Word Smith, Roland Agni [The Song of Roland, referred to by name late in the book], John Baal, Glorious Mundy, Luke Gofannon [when you strike out, you “go fannin'”], Ulysses S. Fairsmith, Deacon Demeter, Howie Pollux, Wayne Heket [Egyptian god], Colonel Chichikov [Dead Souls], Colonel Raskolnikov [Crime and Punishment], and many others), I would recommend this book to fans of the American humorists and fans of baseball. Ignore the flaws, and give it read: it’s fun.

One lingering issue remains. Given that the book is called The Great American Novel, it seems like Roth felt it was necessary to justify the title. This is what the prologue serves to do, and what a prologue it is! Truly extraordinary. It’s written from the point of view of the fictional author of the book, Word Smith, and recounts how he came to write the novel and why, as well as his opinions on some great literary works, and a fictionalized encounter with Ernest Hemingway. Now, I’ve never met Ernest Hemingway (and, believe me, I thank my lucky stars for that everyday), but I will tell you this: if there is a more accurate portrayal of the man in print, I don’t want to read it. The scene is quite extraordinary. It’s Word Smith and Hemingway (the character) on a boat fishing with a young woman (English major). The topic of the great American novel comes up, and the woman suggests three: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn (Word Smith later gives a mini-review of each of these). Drunken Hemingway rips all three of these novels apart, physically abuses and terrifies the rest of the crew, and goes on a tirade about how he’s the one who’s going to write the great American novel, since he is the greatest writer in the history of the world. And so, for a few pages, the reader is treated to what an awful, awful human being Ernest Hemingway must have been. (Perhaps this is why the title of the book is what it is. Now whenever anyone asks, “Who wrote the great American novel?”, we can all answer truthfully: Philip Roth, in 1973.)

As a parting shot, it’s worth noting that the book ends with a letter written by Word Smith to Chairman Mao of the People’s Republic of China. Since no one takes his book seriously, he hopes to have The Great American Novel published in communist China.

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