Thursday, July 23, 2015

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

I apologize for the long, long delay between posts here.

I'll try to maintain at least a semi-regular schedule on this blog from now on. I don't plan on making this thing exclusively book reviews, but I do need to catch up on a few novels I've read over the past month or so.

Tonight, I'll be combing through Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., a novel that combines my recent romance with literature and my lifelong romance with baseball.

How I Discovered It: This is not to brag, but a baseball-themed story I wrote was published by my school's literary journal in the Spring. The piece later won the yearly Creative Non-Fiction award at my university, and, as a result, I found myself known as "the baseball guy" amongst my peers. One of my classmates found out about it and recommended this book to me due to the baseball-centric subject matter. I ordered a copy of Coover's novel for myself about a week later and dug into it not long after that. It's the first book I can think of that I bought/read on a recommendation by someone other than my dad.

Total Reading Time: A week.

Overview: I'll say right off the bat that this novel is built around one of those ideas that, as a writer, I wish I'd had. 

The basis revolves around an accountant (J. Henry Waugh) who becomes deeply immersed in a baseball dice game born entirely out of his own creation. Specifically, when the reader meets him in Chapter One, Henry is completely enthralled with a star rookie pitcher named Damon Rutherford (son of Brock Rutherford, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the UBA -- Universal Baseball Association). Damon tosses a perfect game, and Henry celebrates as if it was, on a personal level, a major accomplishment. The climax of the novel, however, comes when Damon is tragically killed by an errant hit by pitch, a dire end that comes about as a result of a three straight triple-1 dice rolls by Henry. The rest of the novel, more or less, features the downfall of Damon's passing though Henry's eyes. Henry loses his motivation, his job, and, as the reader can infer, his mind.

I went into this novel with high hopes and wasn't quite sure what to think by the time I flipped the last page. It may have been the most night-and-day narrative of any book I've ever read. I'd put the first two chapters up against some of my most treasured pieces of literature. Coover blends a perfect mix of comedy, fantasy, celebration, anticipation, and, ultimately, tragedy into the first 50-75 pages of this novel. The opening chapters almost make you forget that this is a dice game. You celebrate right along with Henry after Damon's perfect game, and you feel beaten and empty after the pitcher's death. I breezed through the first two chapters and couldn't wait for more.

But, to be completely honest, the final three chapters of this novel were somewhat of a slog. The third chapter features a long, meandering bar scene featuring a countless number of Henry's mystical, fantasy ballplayers, whooping it up in celebration of the "good ol' days" of the UBA. Henry himself, meanwhile, is vacant from the third chapter. I got what the section was trying to do, trying to highlight Henry's seemingly paradoxical attempt to escape the tragedy of the current UBA by immersing himself in the old UBA, each of which are fantasies within themselves. I understood this after about five pages, but the chapter goes on for about five times that and doesn't advance the novel a whole lot. The fourth chapter was a bit of a rebound, in that Henry seeks some sort of "retaliation" for the pitcher (Jock Casey) who threw the pitch that caused Damon's death. The fifth and final chapter is somewhat of a variation of the third, and left me lukewarm about the ultimate end of the novel.

Though I doubt it's through any fault of Coover's, I was also unhappy about the descriptions on the book jacket itself. The very first sentence of the brief description on the back of the novel gives away the ultimate "shocker" of the plot, Damon's death. This, as a result, made me read the first two chapters in a way that had me waiting for the climax, rather than it catching me off-guard. Part of the beauty of reading a good book is that feeling of WHAT?!?!?! when something unexpected happens. This novel definitely had that, but the publisher (or whoever writes the those back descriptions) gave it away within about three seconds of me picking this book up.

In the end, I did enjoy this book, even if I felt that it was a little lacking in execution. If nothing else, the novel got me to pick up an old baseball dice game I used to play as a preteen/adolescent. I've been playing it daily ever since I finished this book. Unlike video games, dice games place the entire burden of creation upon us, the players. Dice games allow us to create the setting within our own imaginations, which, for some of us, is precisely the fix we need. Maybe I'm not that different from J. Henry Waugh after all.

Final Grade: B


Salgado said...

I think it's funny that this book got you back into MLB Showdown. I kinda steered away from it for a bit because it had me thinking, "Am I this guy?" Considering my friends and I had "coaching staffs" typically made up of Muppets, I don't think we were too far off.

Great review. Nice to see another blog where you can show off your writing.

JoshSamBob said...

Great review - this was a fascinating concept, but you were spot-on in saying that the final few chapters were a slog. I tried re-reading this a few years after my first effort... and the result was roughly the same.

I'd love to read your award-winning piece some time!