December 2011

Benjamin Taylor

fiction

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

Robert Coover is a hack, a card-player with words, a precursor to the rest of twentieth-century fiction, so one hears. Not a writer to be trusted, certainly not with the nation's pastime, legion though those who might differ may be. A fabulist, a trickster, a man who makes you want to think he knows that of which he writes.

Believe that, and you're as naive as those who call Gaddis too difficult or David Foster Wallace too precious.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J Henry Waugh, Prop. is easily the greatest book ever written about baseball, in his times, in times before his, and in our times. There's been better nonfiction and frankly, fiction books written about baseball, but Coover's 1968 paean to America's great game stands alone for a number of reasons.

Number one, it's not about baseball, though Henry is obsessed with baseball -- ironically and to Coover's credit -- not the baseball of 1968 (the year in which The UBA was first published), on the heels of what many would call baseball's Golden Age, the age in the afterglow of such luminaries as Mantle, Maris, Koufax. For those of us born in the mid-eighties, who grew up in the cold heart of the era in which one could place a reasonable bet on the relative sizes of Barry Bonds's head and a watermelon's, the mid-to-late sixties have acquired a patina of purest gold, when baseball was baseball.

The protagonist of Coover's novel goes back even further, to the '70s and '90s -- nineteenth century, that is -- to harvest names and styles. See, Henry Waugh has this thing. He's a single accountant at a middling firm, fifty-six, and seemingly content with both of the above. He also happens to be, as the title suggests, the lone proprietor, accountant, commissioner, and god of the Universal Baseball Association. An association which, it must be said, exists solely in Henry's head and on the voluminous records of which he keeps. Literally voluminous -- Henry's bookshelf is consumed by bound copies of year after year of UBA statistics, records, financials, political moves, births, deaths, et al. It is a universe unto itself.

To clarify: J. Henry Waugh is the precursor for many twenty-first century sports fans -- a fantasy player, and in the true sense of the adjective. Coover paints his day-to-day job in the early going in shades no brighter than light gray, and convincingly. Waugh comes home -- when he's not preoccupied enough to go to work in the first place -- and does fantasy baseball the tried and true way. He rolls the dice and sees what happens. He's not a noob though; three dice, each roll precisely calibrated to charts of outcomes he's developed, ranging from random death to perfect game. (Both of which factor in.)

The novel begins with Damon Rutherford, son of the all-time great in Henry's world, pitching a perfect game in accordance with the vagaries of chance. A rookie, lifting his team to a few games of the pennant doing something only eighteen pitchers have ever accomplished during baseball's modern era, starting at 1900. Naturally, Henry is exuberant -- I would be too were my fantasy team to feature a perfect game-winning pitcher. The difference, of course, is that the pitcher on my team would actually exist (would be wearing a Cubs uniform too, unlikely, but, hey, it's fantasy).

Henry's life is bare. He exists fleetingly in the confines of his desk, the deli where he orders pastrami sandwiches, sojourns to Pete's place -- the bar where he either drowns his sorrows or celebrates his triumphs -- and with Hettie, the floozy (really there's not a better word) with whom he periodically does the deed.

Yet when, ideally, pastrami and sixer in hand, he climbs the lonely steps to his apartment, things come alive. There's old Brock Rutherford warming up in the pen, 23-7, 2.13 this year, ready to mow down those Knickerbockers and take the pennant. (Just to give you a taste of Coover's incredibly accurate and nostalgic style in the book.) Henry exists entirely in the world he's created, voicing the players often audibly, visualizing stepping into the box, drinking a beer with the fans. Damon's perfect game is something that affects him personally; he feels pride for the son, reminiscent about the father.

After that game, things change for Henry. His godhood changes, becomes more intense, more focused, more -- in some traditions -- godlike.

In the end, that's what Coover's novel is about: the need to control. This is manifest nowadays, but prescient at the novel's publishing. All of which just credits Coover; even played on paper, fantasy baseball in the '60s wasn't something one heard much about, and it's only in the internet era that it's exploded into a national pastime of its own.

What Coover is writing about is a desire as old as Aeschylus -- the want, need rather, to administer unto ourselves an entire universe, to move the pieces, dictate the plays, and engineer the ultimate results. Other critics have compared the "moral" of Coover's to that of Bush and Rumsfeld's when it came to the concept of "Shock and Awe." I don't know that I'd go that far.

What I do know, though, is that Coover in this novel -- and certainly presciently -- hit upon a string in human nature that I don't know had ever been so eloquently plucked. The need to compartmentalize, to count, to control has been with us since rising out of the muck; its modern variants afford so many opportunities previously unavailable, not even to mention computers.

Henry creates an entire universe out of his unrealized loneliness. Coover's point, perhaps, is that we all do the same daily, out of an endless variety of books, magazines, TV shows, movies, etc. The UBA is a tragic novel for Henry and what the reader feels for him, yet unblinkingly. The indictment -- or the assessment, whichever suits one's take on Coover  -- is that we, as a whole are far more privy to assess and inventory our own private obsessions than to take in as a whole what Thoreau referred to as the mass of men living lives of quiet desperation.

Ultimately The UBA should be read as an Emersonian call to individualism, on par with The Great Gatsby as a capture of the unique American spirit.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover
The Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1590203118
256 pages