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Certainly the best time to read a book about baseball is right now—in the quiet of early winter, with a fire in the fireplace and the ballplayers off managing their restaurants, their organ combos and their nightclubs. For this reason Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. ( Random House, New York, $4.95) should not have been introduced last summer at all.
For one thing, The Association takes quite a bit of reading; done properly it could consume a couple of winter weekends. When the novel appeared last summer—with real, live baseball going on all around—it encountered a definite wave of mild indifference. Critics and book reviewers liked it all right, but most of them found it pretty heavy going. No wonder. What Random House (probably) and Coover (surely) must realize now is that the critics had one eye on the book and the other on McLain or Gibson. And while Coover did not exactly strike out, he sure didn't knock this one right out of the literary ballpark.
There is still time to correct the error. Coover has a crazy story to tell, with a nice simple plot, full of the sort of inside baseball black humor that fans and nonfans alike could love. In brief, it is the tale of a lonely man, a 56-year-old accountant, J. Henry Waugh. He invents a baseball game, a supergame, with teams, leagues, heroes and bums, with promising rookies, crusty managers, form sheets, laws of probability—everything. The game moves by the roll of dice. And Waugh plays it with single-minded dedication until, finally, the game begins to play him. Anyone who has ever played Monopoly, holding something like Marvin Gardens against the world, can understand the fascination of watching dice roll.
Unfortunately, pretentious reviewers read more into the book than is actually there. By inventing the baseball game, by manipulating its players, Coover's hero is really playing God, see? And his collapse into madness represents the collapse inherent in all of us, see?
Nonsense. J. Henry Waugh plays his game because he likes it better than he likes real live people; his game is populated by great, lovable characters with good solid baseball names like Rag Rooney and Hatrack Hines, all of whom have a lot more fun than anyone Henry knows on the outside. A God-substitute would hardly stage what has to be the funniest sex scene in modern literature—all played out in familiar oldtime baseball terms that somehow never sounded bawdy before.
In Coover's book everybody goes slightly daffy at the end (just as they do at the end of any normal baseball season), after Waugh is forced to kill off his star rookie pitcher with a prophetic roll of the dice that controls the game. So much for Godlike acts: Waugh's chart says that if you roll three ones on the dice that means the guy must die, right? Right. Waugh kills his man, goes right out and gets drunk, as any self-respecting league owner might do; then, after a suitable period of hung-over mourning, he goes right back to the game.
That's it, baseball fans. A book so full of inner baseball knowledge and humor that it sparkles. Not a book for summer, when one would be distracted by real players doing real things out there. But a book for winter, to be read sitting by a hot stove.