On two novels that put the sport to very distinct symbolic work.
Sports in general make very good metaphors—just ask George Carlin, whose bit on baseball vs. football remains one of the great metaphorical analyses of all time. But it seems to me that in American stories and narratives, no sport has more consistently offered up metaphors for key themes and issues than baseball: from fathers and sons in Field of Dreams (1989; spoiler alert!) to relationships and love in Bull Durham (1988) and For Love of the Game (1999), good and evil in The Natural (1952) to life and death in Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), communal hope and disappointment in “Casey at the Bat” (1888) to the Civil War in Play for a Kingdom (1998), American culture and literature are full to overflowing with baseball tales that depict yet transcend the sport. (I’ve even got my personal favorite baseball and America story, for when I finally write that screenplay.)
With the exception of the putrid For Love of the Game, each of the works in that paragraph (and plenty of others I didn’t mention, such as 2011’s The Art of Fielding) has a lot to recommend it. But to my mind there are two baseball novels that stand out even among that crowded and impressive field, vying for the title not only of greatest baseball work but of the ever-elusive Great American Novel. Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973) does so self-consciously, overtly, swinging for the fences from its title on; but if David James Duncan’s The Brothers K (1992) is not quite so blatant in its ambition, both the novel’s social and historical sweep (it covers with equal breadth the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s; Vietnam, leftist radicalism, Eastern philosophy, religion, work, love, death) and its multi-layered echoes of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) make clear its own quest for the pennant. The two novels differ greatly in tone—Roth’s is, like much of his work, sarcastic and cynical; Duncan’s far more earnest and poignant—but also, and more relevantly for this week’s series, in the uses to which they put their baseball threads.
On the one hand, Roth’s novel is far more centrally composed of such threads than Duncan’s—every character in The Great American Novel is connected in one way or another to the book’s fictional baseball team (the Ruppert Mundys) and league (the Patriot League), whereas in Brothers K there are long sections in which we follow characters into very distinct settings and worlds (Vietnam, India, an isolated Canadian cabin) where baseball has little if any presence. Yet on the other hand, and without spoiling the specifics too fully, Duncan uses baseball, and its symbiotic relationship to the brothers’ father in particular, as a framing element in deeper and more structural ways, so that wherever the boys go, and whatever other themes their stories involve, we see the interconnections with the sport and its defining familial and American presences. Which is to say, I don’t know if Roth’s novel would fundamentally change if it focused on basketball, or soccer, or the publishing world, or any other sphere; while Duncan’s is to my mind, despite its breadth, a baseball novel through and through.
Next diamond connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Baseball stories or works you’d highlight?
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