The Great American Novel

by Philip Roth

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In The Great American Novel, Philip Roth centers on baseball as the ultimate symbol of the American hero's quest for meaning and, perhaps, for perfection.

However, the fictional team that Roth creates in this book is very far from perfect. Roth emphasizes the magical hold that baseball has on Americans. Towards the end of a dull game, for example, baseball is capable of instantly transfixing even a person who had stopped paying attention to the game and was thinking mainly about going home. In one such game, the fans in the stands:

were transfixed, perhaps for the first time in their lives, by the strangeness of things, the wondrous strangeness of things, by all that is beyond the pale and just does not seem to belong in this otherwise cozy and familiar world of ours. . . . [T]he noise . . . might have originated in the swaying jungle foliage or in some dark pocket of the moon for the sense of fear and wonder that it awakened in men who only a moment earlier had been anticipating their slippers and their favorite chair.

The novel takes the form of a book within a book. The frame is the reminiscences of 87-year-old Word Smith, a retired sportswriter and columnist in poor health living in a nursing home. Although his doctor has warned him that writing is too stimulating and therefore bad for his heart, Smitty is determined to finish his novel about baseball and about what he sees as a serious error and collective lapse of memory that needs to be corrected:

I am speaking of a chapter of our past that has been torn from the record books without so much as a peep of protest, except by me. . . . I am speaking of the annihilation of the Patriot League. Not merely wiped out of business, but willfully erased from the national memory.

Smitty not only feels that he is destined to write the Great American Novel (or GAN, as he refers to it), but he insists that he had been friends with Ernest Hemingway, who had told him in 1936 that he was the man who must write it.

The narrative turns to Smitty's tale of the Patriot League, which operated through the Second World War, a period when it labored under handicaps imposed by the drafting of able-bodied men into the service.

In particular, Smitty traces the story of a team called the Ruppert Mundys. In the first baseball tall-tale he tells, a man named Hem went with him to see a Mundys practice in Florida, during which John Baal was playing first base. Bothered by a flock of pelicans hovering over the field, Baal decides to hit one with a ball:

Pelican must have mistaken the ball for something good to eat, a flying fish I suppose, because he went soaring straight up after one John had hit like a shot and hauled it in while it was still on the rise.

According to Smitty, when he filed his story, Hem was jealous and accused him of appropriating his style and walked out in a huff. He never saw him again.

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