Readers of contemporary fiction have been waiting for the publication of Chad Harbachs first novel,The Art of Fielding,ever since Little, Brown paid a stunning $650,000 for the manuscript at auction in 2010. The novel, which is set to come out in September, tells the story of a trying season for the Westish College baseball team, examining the teams various players and the ways in which the game affects their lives. So, in anticipation of this bookand keeping in mind David Gibsons post about baseball and CatholicismIm planning on slowly making my way through the pantheon of great baseball novels. On deck I have Philip Roths The Great American Novel, Bernard Malamuds The Natural, and Mark Harriss Bang the Drum Slowly.My early nominee for best baseball novel (and by best I mean both the best novel that happens to be about baseball and the novel that best gives a sense of baseballs essence) is Robert Coovers The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Coovers second novel was published in 1968, the famous Year of the Pitcher in which Bob Gibson finished with a 1.12 ERA (with 13 shutouts!) and Denny McLain won 31 games in helping the Detroit Tigers to the championship. Its a wonderful accident of history that one of baseballs most historic seasons coincided with one of the most inventive baseball books ever written.
The main character of The Universal Baseball Association is J. Henry Waugh, a fifty-six year old accountant in danger of losing his job due to his growing obsession with the Universal Baseball Association, a simulated, dice-determined baseball game of Henrys invention. Using his accounting skills, Henry has created an intricate series of charts that help him determine what play results from each roll. Lets say a Star batter (a designation given to a limited number of players) is facing a Rookie pitcher, and Henry rolls a 3-4-5. Henry would consult his Star vs. Rookie chart and see, for instance, that a 3-4-5 results in a double to left field. Then, its on to the next batter. There are special charts for if a player wants to steal third base, or try a suicide squeeze, or attempt a hit-and-run. (Those, like me, who love Strat-O-Matic Baseball will recognize how difficult it is to describe the beauty and complexity of Henrys game. Henry experiences the same frustration when he tries to explain the rules of his game to a co-worker.)But its what happens after the dice have been rolled and the charts consulted that so consumes Henry. Playing by himself, Henry has created a league of eight teams with an eighty-four-game schedule, and he is on his fifty-sixth year of league play. Moreover, Henry has constructedand written up in the Book, his year-end account of each seasonelaborate back stories for each player. The league is really a world unto itself, with a long institutional memory, shifting political allegiances, and bawdy folk songs about its players. Coover is equally adept at giving us a rich sense of the leagues imagined cultural history and at allowing us to experience the thrill of Henry rolling his way through a high-pressure game.All this imaginative work takes its toll on Henry. Henrys struggle to maintain the distinction between his game and the world outside provides the novel with much of its comedy. Henrys game comes to consume his every waking moment. (While sleeping with a prostitute, for instance, Henry pathetically imagines himself as the strapping young pitcher who has just pitched a perfect game.) By the end, even Henry largely disappears from sight, and the novel becomes less about Henrys relationship to his game than about the game itself. The creation has pushed aside the creator.Coover has long been recognized as one of the most important, if not one of the most widely read, early writers of postmodern literature. (He still teaches at Brown University, and is one of the founders of the avant-garde Electronic Literature Organization.) The Universal Baseball Association is delightfully self-conscious about its status as fiction. Henrys anxieties as creator and proprietor of the UBAhow to organize discrete events into a narrative, how to reconcile his longing for his players to have agency with his absolute control over their destinies, whether to intervene and change results at willare stand-ins for the anxieties of all authors. Here, for instance, is Henrys meditation on the importance of naming his players: The dice and charts and other paraphernalia were only the mechanics of the drama, not the drama itself. Names had to be chosen, therefore, that could bear the whole weight of perpetuity Name a man and you make him what he is. Novelists have, of course, always recognized that names are important: Dickens knew what he was doing, for instance, when he named the skinflint of Bleak House Harold Skimpole. But for postmodernists like Coover, the naming of characters becomes not just a means to meaning but meaning itself; the mechanics of the drama become the drama.The book is filled with riffs on the nature of fictional representation. At one point, Henry imagines his players holding their breaths as they wait for the roll of the dice, but then he realizes, But no, of course not, they couldnt know. They could feel the rising tension, the terrific stress, the moments ripeness, but that was all. Only Henry knew. Even the players themselves get in on the metafictional act: after tragedy strikes, one player thinks, Maybe that was the solution: turn it into folklore. Wouldnt be in the way then. Right on cue, one player, now a noted songwriter, turns another players death into song: Hang down your heads, brave men, and weep! / Young [name taken out so as to not spoil things] has come to harm! / They have carried him off to a grave dark and deep: / The boy with the magic arm! The metafictional complexity here is dizzying: Henry, a character in a novel, imagines a baseball player (who is thus twice-imagined), who then turns another imagined baseball player into a song that will be passed down to later generations of imagined baseball players.These passages are certainly metafictional, but they arent just metafictional. Coover uses these playful passages to explore serious problems: how can we reconcile free will and divine providence? (Henry is a god to his players, after all.) What are the responsibilities of a creator to his creation? Of the creation to its creator? Coover shows that there are real stakes, both philosophical and theological, to postmodernist self-consciousness.Finally, The Universal Baseball Association is a terrific baseball book. It examines what distinguishes baseball from other sports, pondering how it weds the mythologizing, poetic impulse with a strict sense of statistical accountability. As Henry muses at one point, And no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history, so specific an ethic, and, at the same time, strange as it seemed, so much ultimate mystery. In a subtle twist, Henry actually isnt talking about baseball (to tell the truth, real baseball bored him) but rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence. In this way, Henry is again like the postmodern author: not obsessed with reality, whatever that might be, but with representations of it.Baseball, Coover shows us, is particularly well suited to this kind of meditation. As any sports fan can tell you, a baseball box score is far richer than a box score from any other sport. In baseball, every play is accounted for and makes its way into the permanent record; its why statistics are so much a part of the games history. Coover gets this deep connection between the game and its recording, between the things the players do on the field and the way these things are turned into stats and stories. Coovers book sets the bar high for Harbach and for any other novelist writing about our great American pastime.