The Great American Novel

by Philip Roth
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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel” describes the misadventures of the Ruppert Mundys, a mythical baseball team who played in the now defunct Patriot League, illustrating how the scandalous downfall of this particular team caused the downfall of the league itself. The text is heavily satirical, in that it draws frequent parallels between the condition of America’s national pastime, which in these pages takes on a quasi-religious significance, and the health of the ideals for which America was created and by which it is sustained. Word Smith, the mouth piece through which the story is told begins with a long rambling prologue, somewhat emblematic of the 1943/44 season that the novel focuses on, describing the decline of the Patriot League in a tone that alternates between fond nostalgia and a bitter resolve to preserve the true history of the league from those who would twist and manipulate the truth for their own ends. While the novel’s text focuses on one season, the author refers frequently to events from past seasons, such as the kidnap and murder of an umpire’s child and the mistreatment of one of the league’s principle stars, Gil Gamesh, with the aim of portraying his beloved patriot league as an underdog in a constant struggle for survival with its competitors.

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Latest answer posted April 20, 2014, 3:07 am (UTC)

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The season gets off to a bad start when the US military seizes the Ruppert Mundy’s stadium for use as a military training camp, leaving the team homeless. They are therefore compelled to drift from city to city, state to state, a process that mocks the classic American trope of the rugged and wandering adventurer. The Mundys compete in and lose a series of matches with local teams, hampered in their efforts by a squad made up of physically and intellectually incapable players. The pathos evoked by their repeated humiliations is mitigated at times by humorous incidents, such as the match they play against the inmates at an asylum for the mentally insane. However, at other times, Roth makes reference to negative stereotypes pertaining to race, class, and political belief as existing within the league, which acts as a microcosm for American society as a whole.

The team’s best player, the only player Roth deems capable of competing in the big leagues, eventually tires of losing and decides to take action. Roland Agni formulates a scheme that involves contaminating his teammate’s breakfast cereal with steroids, causing them to go on a winning streak that catches the attention of the American public and even of the president himself. In the light of this new attention, Agni decides to abort his initial scheme, which had been to buy his way off the team using his wages. Tragedy strikes on the day that the Mundys are finally defeated when their longtime manager, Ulysses S. Fairsmith, dies of a stroke. His replacement, the once renowned pitcher Gil Gamesh, proves to be an ardent communist who indoctrinates his players with an anti-patriotic spirit that angers the American public and results in a congressional investigation of the league itself. The Mundys do not fair well in this investigation, and the scandal that falls upon them as a result of its findings proves too damaging for the Patriot League to endure. Its dissolution comes soon after in the late 1940s.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

The Great American Novel is the story of the bumbling Ruppert Mundys baseball club and of the Patriot Baseball League. In a lengthy prologue, aging sportswriter Word Smith (Smitty) recalls the greatness of the league, hints at the reasons for its demise, and bemoans the attempts by Americans of all walks of life to erase the league from memory. His mission is to preserve this part of American history: The story which makes up the novel proper is his account of the league’s demise.

The main action of the novel occurs in 1943 and 1944, though numerous flashbacks provide a sense of history necessary for the reader to understand the relationship of the Patriot League to the other major leagues and to provide the rationale for much of the action which takes place during this fateful baseball season. In these flashbacks, interspersed throughout the novel, the reader learns of the tragedy of umpire Mike Masterson, whose child was kidnapped and killed; the banishment of legendary pitcher Gil Gamesh; the missionary zeal of Mundys manager Ulysses S. Fairsmith; the conversion of Tri-City Tycoons owner Angela Whitling Trust from sexual profligate to dedicated American Communist hunter.

In 1943, the Ruppert Mundys find themselves without a home ballpark; the War Department has taken over their stadium as a training camp, and they are forced to play their entire season on the road. The ballplayers who make this season-long odyssey are a collection of men too old, too young, misfit, malformed, or maladapted for life in the big leagues. As they travel from city to city losing game after game and making fools of themselves, Roth offers numerous character studies of the people associated with the team and the league, both on and off the field. Consequently, the story of the Mundys’ miserable season is told in a series of episodic vignettes, each aimed at highlighting the pathetic nature of the club and those who are doomed to play for it.

The Mundys’ season is peppered with embarrassment both on and off the field, and a series of zany incidents makes the chronicle even more amusing. Big John Baal takes fourteen-year-old Nickname Damur to a special kind of prostitute who literally treats him like a baby, bathing and diapering him and singing lullabies to him. The Mundys play an exhibition game against inmates at an insane asylum. A rival owner introduces two dwarfs into the league; when one is traded to the Mundys, a major rivalry begins, leading to a tragedy of national consequence.

Having to suffer the ignominy of playing daily with such inept teammates wears down Roland Agni, the team’s only legitimate major leaguer. Roland schemes with the son of the owner of a rival team to doctor his teammates’ cereal with atomic-powered Wheaties; as a result, the Mundys start winning. Roland, who plays for no salary because his father wants to break his excessive pride, begins earning money so that he can buy his way off the club. The scheme fails, however, when he aborts the project because many high-ranking Americans, including the president, begin taking an interest in the team. On the day that the Mundys’ winning streak is finally broken, however, manager Fairsmith dies of a stroke, brought on by Nickname Damur’s attempt to steal a base with the club thirty-one runs behind.

Fairsmith is replaced by Gil Gamesh, who is restored to baseball because he convinces league president General Douglas O. Oakhart and Tycoons owner Angela Trust that he is the only man who can save the league from a Communist plot. In fact, Gamesh, while claiming to be a reformed Communist agent, infects the Mundys with a hatred of other teams, the fans, and everything American. There is a congressional investigation of the league, and numerous agents of the Red Menace are identified; the Mundys turn out to be a particular hotbed of Communism. The Patriot League is unable to withstand the scandal; fans desert the teams, and finally, in the late 1940’s, the league dies.

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