Friday, July 14, 2006

All Times a Fantasy

by Matt Sandler

One of the elements of fantasy baseball that we may not acknowledge as a main reason for playing is the small degree of power that we feel it gives us. Surely, this power is false—I’m guessing Trot Nixon neither knows nor cares that I just dropped him—but it does allow us to live vicariously as general managers. The novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) by Robert Coover details one man’s obsessive playing with an early version of fantasy baseball. The game takes over his personal and professional lives and absorbs entirely too much of his time.

The protagonist, Henry Waugh, is a lonely bachelor, 56 years old, living in an unnamed big city. He works as an accountant for a small firm, a job which gives him little personal satisfaction; it just pays the bills. His life mainly consists of playing a dice-based fantasy baseball game of his own devising, with little time in his life for food, sex, friends, and all the other necessities. (One of the best scenes in the book describes a rare sexual encounter that he has with an unattractive woman he knows from the local bar, which contains a sustained baseball-as-sex metaphor equivalent to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”)

The level of detail he creates surrounding his fantasy league is truly frightening. He is in Season LXI of the Universal Baseball Association, and each season involves playing out 84 games for each of the eight teams in the league. Each season takes about two months, implying that he has been at this game for almost ten years without much of a break. It is not just the rolls of the dice that he is responsible for (it should be noted that he plays by himself, not against anybody else). He has created an entire history regarding the league, with commissioners, biographies, deaths, detailed records, and much, much more, all of which he meticulously records in official logs.

It is amazing how many of the scenes take place in Waugh’s mind, as the games come to life in his mind, as do retired ballplayers drowning their sorrows at a favorite bar, swapping tales from their playing days. Waugh creates a whole supporting cast around the league, of sportswriters, groupies, bartenders, political parties, and other colorful characters. If Waugh’s real life were half as interesting as the world he creates in his head, he might be on to something.

The level of involvement that Henry (and the book itself) has in the league is so great that the main plot point is the death of one of the fake players in Henry’s league. This causes Henry to have a crisis that causes major trouble at work, but whether he retains his job, and if he continues playing in the league, I will leave for you to discover.

The book works best as a study in obsession, and as a cautionary tale about what could happen if we get too involved in any habit or hobby. Coover’s writing, which is considered postmodern, takes some getting used to. Here he is describing the funeral for the player:

“Ruefully, the sackbuts poop-poop-dee-pooped , discreetly distant. In bitter cold, through streets draped in black, slowly advanced the pallbearers. Hop, skip, and a long cold shuffle. The frozen corpse rocked in the hollow box: whump! tum-tum-tum clump! Long live the dead queen!”


The noted baseball writer John Thorn describes a whole different layer to the book in a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review. He writes, “Literary critics have sniffed out the allegorical hints in Coover’s tale…Waugh’s name can be condensed to ‘JHWH,’ the transliterated name of God; and although he created the rules and casts the die, each roll of the bones brings to him, to his players and to the reader an illusion of free will.” Certainly, a great deal of the allure to Henry, way beyond being a baseball fan (he never goes to real games), is the power of creation. He has the same feeling as an artist creating a painting out of a blank canvas, or an author creating a novel out of thin air. In his UBA, he has control over a world that is so much more exciting and action-packed than the real world he inhabits, and over which he is losing control, or never had any.

Once familiarized with Coover’s unique style of writing, this haunting and very funny novel lingers in the mind. At one meal, his friend Lou expresses concern about Henry’s recent flakiness at work. Lou asks Henry what he has been so busy with, thinking he has been taking work home with him. But Henry brushes away the concern: “What I do, I do because I want to.”


Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan", appears alternate Fridays

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