Sports Long Fiction Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Few would think of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886) as a novel with sport scenes, yet the book includes significant coverage of sports such as skating, tennis, and horse racing. Indeed, many famous writers have included sports in their novels. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) depicts a turkey shoot, pigeon shooting, and bass fishing. Charles Dickens offers a colorful cricket match in Pickwick Papers (1836-1837, serial; 1837, book). Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) is renowned for its bullfighting sequence, but the loving presentation of the joys of fishing is equally vivid. The hero of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) is not just a fisherman but an avid baseball fan obsessed by Joe DiMaggio’s quest to extend his record hitting streak. Beyond such occurrences, however, lies a wealth of fiction devoted mainly to sports.

For many years the most famous sports novels were those of Gilbert Patten. Writing as Burt L. Standish, Patten described the exploits of Frank Merriwell, a star in baseball, basketball, football, track, and crew at Yale University. In more than two hundred dime novels written between 1896 and 1930, Patten presents Merriwell as the epitome of virtuous American youth, always playing according to the rules, never drinking or smoking. Patten was obviously influenced by Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), in which Thomas Hughes demonstrates how cricket and football (soccer) are necessary components of a British gentleman’s education. The Merriwell tales established the template for such writers of young adult sports fiction as Clair Bee, Donald Honig, Jackson Scholz, and John R. Tunis. While many writers have been concerned with athletics, the best-known sports novels have been by American writers.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Thomasville (1940) is a masterpiece of young adult baseball fiction, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952) is widely considered the first great baseball novel, paving the way for more literary examinations of the sport. By equating its hero with the Arthurian knights Lancelot and Parsifal, Malamud created the first mythic baseball tale. His stories also draw from baseball history, notably the legend of Babe Ruth and the career of Eddie Waitkus, the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies shot in the chest by an obsessed fan in 1949.

With The Great American Novel (1973), Philip Roth borrows from The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem written before 2000 b.c.e. about a hero-king. Roth uses his more mundane baseball hero to satirize what he sees as the destructive American obsession with competition. In Jerome Charyn’s The Seventh Babe (1979), a left-handed third baseman for the 1924 Boston Red Sox is banned from the sport for reneging on his marriage vows to a Boston socialite and ends up playing for the Cincinnati Colored Giants. Charyn uses baseball myths to imagine the game as played outside its official history.

Beginning with The Southpaw (1953), Mark Harris wrote four realistic novels narrated in the vernacular by pitcher Henry Wiggen of the New York Mammoths. Wiggen matures from a cocky, naïve youth prone to mistakes on and off the field to a more mature, philosophical man. In the final novel, It Looked Like For Ever...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The most famous basketball player in literature is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the protagonist of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960). This novel is the first of four about Angstrom, whose glory days as a high school basketball star are central in the formation of his character. A one-on-one game with a friend in Rabbit Redux (1971) proves the game has left him behind. The protagonist of Don DeLillo’s Americana (1971) makes an autobiographical film about his high school playing days. DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976) looks at the career of a basketball star from his Bronx high school to an obscure community college in Antarctica.

The most productive writer of basketball fiction is Charles Rosen, former coach of the Oklahoma City Cavalry of the Continental Basketball League and the women’s team at the State University of New York, New Paltz. Rosen’s The Cockroach Basketball League (1992) looks at the lives of players and coaches in minor league basketball, hanging on desperately for a shot at the National Basketball Association. Rosen sees basketball as a metaphor for life’s promise and disappointments. In The House of Moses All-Stars (1996), Rosen uses a barnstorming Jewish team in 1936 to depict the status of society’s outsiders. Rosen’s interest in the social and historical side of the sport can also be seen in Barney Polan’s Game: A Novel of the 1951 College Basketball...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

A football hero’s retirement leaves him with little reason to live in Thomas Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock (1939), a theme also explored in Joiner (1971), by James Whitehead. At six feet seven inches tall and weighing three-hundred pounds, Sonny Joiner has larger-than-life appetites but finds life after football glory disappointing. Don DeLillo’s highly regarded End Zone (1972) follows a college running back through one season and equates the violence of football with the annihilation brought on by nuclear war.

The best known of many sports novels by longtime Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins is Semi-Tough (1972), in which Billy Clyde Puckett pours as much energy into his off-the-field exploits as he does as the star running back for the New York Giants. In this parody of autobiographies by athletes, Jenkins pokes fun at those who want to add glamour to their lives by hanging around with football players. Jenkins continues Puckett’s story in Life Its Ownself: The Semi-Tougher Adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett and Them (1984). While most football novels focus on players and coaches, sportswriter Mike Lupica makes an owner the hero of his satirical Bump and Run (2000) and Red Zone (2003). A Las Vegas casino worker inherits the New York Hawks from his father and finds the inhabitants of National Football League boardrooms just as greedy as his former colleagues.

Peter Gent, a basketball star at Michigan State University who became a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 to 1968, wrote the satirical North Dallas Forty (1973). Gent presents professional football as a win-at-any-cost enterprise conducted by businessmen who care nothing about their players as human beings. His hero is forced to take painkillers to continue playing. Gent also writes about professional football in Texas Celebrity Turkey Trot (1978) and The Franchise (1983) and the corruption of college basketball in The Conquering Heroes (1994).

The football-related novel with the highest critical reputation is A Fan’s Notes (1968). In Frederick Exley’s autobiographical tale, the writer describes his numerous failures, including a drinking problem, and contrasts his life with the success of his University of Southern California classmate Frank Gifford, a football star in college and later with the New York Giants. Exley lives vicariously through Gifford, eagerly awaiting each Sunday and his idol’s exploits, usually watched on a barroom television. A Fan’s Notes has been acclaimed for its powerful portrayal of success and failure in America.


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In Dead Solid Perfect (1974), by Dan Jenkins, the uncle of an aging golfer, after years of barely making the cut on the Professional Golfers’ Association tour, finds himself among the leaders at the master’s tournament. Uncle Kenny, a self-mocking, profane, politically incorrect hero, nevertheless considers golf a mental disorder such as politics, gambling, and chasing women. Jenkins also looks humorously at the sport in The Money-Whipped Steer-Job Three-Jack Give-Up Artist (2001) and Slim and None (2005).

The mythical side of golf is addressed in J. Michael Veron’s The Caddie (2004), as the spirit of Bobby Jones, the great American golfer of the 1920’s, tries to save a struggling young player from self-destruction. William Hallberg’s The Rub of the Green (1988) contrasts its hero’s prowess on the course to his messy personal life. The lessons learned from golf also are prominent in Troon McAllister’s The Green (1999) and The Foursome (2000) focusing on hustler Eddie Caminetti, whose victims deserve what they get. Beginning with A Wicked Slice (1989), the wife-husband team of Charlotte and Aaron Elkins offers mysteries featuring Lee Ofsted, who stumbles into murders while playing on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The first of John R. Tunis’s many sports novels is American Girl (1928), an unflattering fictional treatment of tennis star Helen Wills Moody, and in Sudden Death (1983), Rita Mae Brown examines America’s intolerance of lesbian athletes in women’s professional tennis. In The Tennis Handsome (1983), Barry Hannah centers his dark, violent humor on an unusually attractive tennis player and his manipulative mentor, and the philosophical limits of tennis are contemplated in Infinite Jest (1996), by David Foster Wallace. The charismatic hero of The Huge Season (1954), by Wright Morris, set at a California college in the 1920’s, is a would-be famous tennis player considered ideal by several of his classmates until he proves self-destructive and commits suicide.


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Fat City (1969), by Leonard Gardner is an especially gritty look at mediocre boxers who refuse to acknowledge that they will never become champions. A young man takes up boxing to escape Chicago’s Polish ghetto in Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning (1942), and the corruption of professional boxing is the focus of Budd Schulberg’s The Harder They Fall (1947). A Korean War veteran comes to grip with his problems only after killing a boxer during a bout in Michael Shaara’s The Broken Place (1968), and Peter Lovesey presents a colorful portrait of Victorian-era boxing, from training to gambling, in his Sergeant Cribb mystery The Detective Wore Silk Drawers (1971).

Horse racing

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The most beloved horse racing novel is Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935), the story of a young girl’s love for her horse and their unlikely victory in England’s Grand National. Arna Bontemps’s God Sends Sunday (1931) profiles the life of an African American jockey. The most popular horse racing novels have been Dick Francis’s mysteries, beginning with Dead Cert (1962), about an English jockey who turns to writing after sustaining a serious injury.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Front Runner (1974), by Patricia Nell Warren, depicting the sexual relationship between a cross-country runner and his coach, is one of the first sports novels to address homosexuality. The way politics sometimes interferes with sports is the subject of Hugh Atkinson’s Olympic marathon novel The Games (1968). In Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), an imprisoned young man discovers the freedom offered by running.

Soccer and rugby

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In Peter Handke’s Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1972), the protagonist’s isolation on the soccer field reflects his alienation from society at large. David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960) contrasts the athletic success of its hero in rugby league football with failure in his romantic life.

Other sports

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The hero of Caroline Gordon’s Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934) finds an order and peace in fishing and hunting that is missing from the rest of his mundane life. Thomas McGuane depicts the decline of a Michigan hunting club in The Sporting Club (1969) and the rivalry between two Key West fishing guides in Ninety-two in the Shade (1973).

The Hustler (1959), by Walter Tevis and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), by William Kennedy look at contemporary mores through the experience of pool hustlers. A young woman becomes the greatest American chess player in Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit (1983), and in Vladimir Nabokov’s Zashchita Luzhina (1930; The Defense, 1964), a chess genius goes insane. Sports as a measure of manhood is the concern of James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970), in which Atlanta suburbanites fight for their survival on a disastrous canoeing trip down a river in Appalachia.

In Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League (1980), Don DeLillo, writing as Cleo Birdwell, creates a memoir of the first woman to play professional hockey in the United States. Netherland (2008), by Irish writer Joseph O’Neill, focuses on the expatriate cricket community in New York City. The novel’s Dutch-born narrator, adrift following September 11, 2001, becomes involved with a man from Trinidad who wants to build a cricket stadium in Brooklyn. Beginning with Deal Breaker (1995), Harlan Coben has written several mysteries featuring character Myron Bolitar, an attorney and sports agent who solves crimes involving his clients. Each novel involves a different sport.


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Cocchiarale, Michael, and Scott Emmert. Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Essays explore the vastness of sports, athletes, fandom, mass media, and more and examine its representation in and influence on American literature. A comprehensive, scholarly, and readable collection.

Crowe, Chris. More than a Game: Sports Literature for Young Adults. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Chapters in this study of sports fiction for youths include “From the School Room to the Playing Field: A History of Young Adult Sports Literature” and “Sports Literature for Young Women.”

Hill, Jeffrey. Sport and the Literary Imagination: Essays in History, Literature, and Sport. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Essays by American and British writers study the influence of sports and athletics in crafting literature.

Oriard, Michael. Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982. Covers sports fiction in the United States, considering themes such as history, myth, and aging. Includes chapters on “country and city” and “men without women” in sports fiction.

_______. Sporting with the Gods: The Rhetoric of Play and Game in American Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Examines sports, gaming, and other modes of “play” in the context of American culture. Discusses how these three themes have influenced American literature since the late eighteenth century.

Westbrook, Deeanne. Ground Rules: Baseball and Myth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. Study of the role of myth in baseball fiction, with discussion of the works of W. P. Kinsella, Bernard Malamud, William Kennedy, and others.