Friday, October 9, 2009

The Universal Baseball Association

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover
1968, 174 pp.

This strange and rather endearing little book is rather like a musty capsule sent up from those disreputable realms once referred to disparagingly by Gore Vidal as the “research and development” division of fiction writing. It comes from a different time, when meta-fiction was still a new world to be explored, before the arch irony of the self-appointed post-modernists drowned all sense of wonder and empathy in exploratory fiction. Coover was one of the first great meta-fictionists during the high 1960’s when it was still possible to speak of a serious American literary avant-garde. His most famous book is probably The Public Burning, which approaches the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from a perspective somewhat akin to magical realism. (Incidentally, this seems to be an oddly resonant confluence of interests: E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed 1971 novel The Book of Daniel deals with the same case in a metafictional sort of way.) The Universal Baseball Association is brief, elliptical, and allegorical. It is full of baseball, full of middle aged failure and loneliness, and is also about God and creation, good and evil.

The story is about a sad, lonely, 56-year old accountant named J. Henry Waugh, who loves games. He has designed himself a baseball game he plays with dice, which has been so elaborately thought out that it simulates all of the possibilities and probabilities of real baseball. He has created teams, players, histories, relationships, sexual tendencies, bars, songs, politics, commentary. He has charts governing all manner of possible outcomes, and in his mind the characters live and breathe and play baseball. This reveals itself gradually: the book seems to open with Henry watching a game. Or perhaps he is at one. Only slowly do we realize that it and everything he sees and hears at it is in his imagination.

Like Henry, the Association is past its prime. The Golden Age is over, and since Henry can play through a year in about six weeks, whole dynasties have risen and fallen and new generations of players emerged. But he is losing interest, until a brilliant young pitcher appears on the scene, throwing the exhilarating perfect game which opens the book. Henry pours all of his hopes into the boy and counts on him to revive the Association and the sole source of interest in Henry’s life. But then the dice turn against him: triple ones twice in a row send him to the “Chart of Extraordinary Occurrences,” and another set of triple ones kills the young hope, struck in the head by a wild pitch. The dice are relentless, and the game turns into a miserable defeat on top of the tragic death. There seems to be no justice in the Association, no sense of good triumphing over evil. Henry is devastated and his life starts to come apart. For long stretches of the book Henry disappears entirely and his imaginary characters take center stage, themselves coming apart under strain. Finally Henry stacks the dice and kills the player who threw the fatal ball, trying to regain balance in the Association.

The reader’s ability to parse what is going on is directly proportional to the amount of time it takes to realize that the name “J. Henry Waugh” is very easily condensed to read “JHWH.” Henry is none other than the Creator himself, and his pure Son dies a premature death at the hands of cruel fate and its evil avatars, who are unfortunately also of Henry’s own creation. The story of The Universal Baseball Association is the progression from a deistic to a theistic God: in case the reader is unclear, the final chapter takes place a hundred “years” in the future, when the Association has resolved into religious sects with rituals and blood feuds.

Quite a lot of the book consists of baseball games and baseball jargon. To some extent, it is probably possible to enjoy without some underlying enjoyment of baseball. Henry is a compelling enough character: sad and pointless in a stultified Middle-American way. His imaginary players are colorful and often entertaining. The writing is good without being flashy. When Coover writes, for instance, that Henry “cried for a long bad time,” the reader must reflect that “long bad time” has no linguistic finesse, but is a perfect phrase nonetheless. The hallucinogenic shifts between Henry’s reality and imagination are not slippery and deceptive in the manner of some more manipulative meta-fictions. One can easily picture them using different aspect ratios, different film stocks. After the initial uncertainty, it is always clear what is going on, which allows the reader more space to think and feel about it. It is a frequently sad book, but a clever one, and Coover’s idea of telling life through baseball is a satisfying conceit. Recommended, but only so long as the reader does not mind a great deal of baseball.

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