In 1972 Picador Books, a new imprint for international fiction, was launched in the UK. The opening gambit of 8 authors included, Borges, Hesse, Angela Carter & Richard Brautigan. This idea of a classily designed, well promoted paperback list might just work & pretty much everywhere you went copies of “Trout Fishing In America”, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” or “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” caught your eye. It was an exciting time. Those adolescent classics, “Animal Farm”, “Lord of the Flies”, were being superseded by the post-Beats, Vonnegut, Dick, Heller, now there was a new generation of American novelists demanding our attention. Of course Hunter S led the way with “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”, Pynchon was a coming attraction. Remember picking up “Portnoy’s Complaint” for the first time & thinking Holy Crap, people can write about this stuff in books ! These Picador books were like releases by a respected record label. If the author passed the quality control then they were likely to be worth checking out. Robert Coover was one of those who made the cut.
“Pricksongs & Descants” is a collection of short stories. Coover had published a couple of novels in the US but I don’t think that they had made the Atlantic crossing. His fractured fairy tales, earthy re-tellings of familiar myths & legends, surprised with their flair and imagination. The brutality, the sexual undertones, of the original stories are developed in a coherent way. This is not “magic realism” more an insightful disclosure of a fragmentary reality. “The Babysitter” juggles many various outcomes. Love, sex, death, disappointment, beauty, all those possibilities you meet on all those new days. There are heavyweight influences, Cervantes, Swift, Beckett, which are not worn lightly or obviously. Coover seemed a modern, confident, funny, new voice.
I was lucky to find “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop” in my local library. This is Coover’s second novel, published before “Pricksongs…” & boy, oh boy, it’s good. America’s National Pastime was a mystery to me in 1974, an E.R.A. was the Equal Rights Amendment, passed by the US Congress 2 years earlier. I was more impressed by a batting average over 50 not one measured in fractions, hey, that’s cricket for you (it’s a British thing). J. Henry Waugh, an accountant, lives a life of little consequence. In the evenings he is the King of the World as far as he knows, playing his own baseball game, running his own baseball league, the U.B.A. J. Henry (Yahweh ?) is in a little too deep, like 56 (his own age) seasons deep. The history, each game, pitch, at bat, was recorded in ledgers. Every player had a name & the league had its stars, its legends. The games were all decided by the throwing of 3 dice…really.
J.Henry was on a roll (thank you), a young pitcher, Damon Rutherford, had produced a perfect game, no runs, no hits. This new star was the son of an all-time great & J.H excitedly rolled right through the night, eager to see his new star throw again. An unprecedented series of tosses invokes the “Extraordinary Occurrences Chart”. The game he invented kills his new star when he is struck on the head. Bad craziness ensues.
“The Universal Baseball Association Inc….” skilfully creates a world of obsession & delusion, control & the lack of it. Black comedy doesn’t cover this stuff. As a sport obsessive myself the rainy days of my early years had been spent similarly fabricating soccer & cricket matches. I was fortunate to have a life outside of the mind, to be able to see those stars of track & field in “real” life & have a little perspective about it (others would disagree). Coover’s use of the sport is no easy hanger for whatever metaphorical suit of lights he wants to display. He gets it & that’s why J.Henry’s two worlds are so convincing. the book is a great sports novel but it’s so much more too. Around this time “The Dice Man” by Luke Rhinehart, a book about a man allowing his life to be controlled by dice, was carrying the swing. Coover’s novel had got there first & was not the self-absorbed, proto-yuppie gobbledegook that was selling by the truck load.
Next time around Robert Coover got properly dark on us. The early half of the 1970s was a tumultuous time in the US, he had something to say about it & I had the time to listen. “The Public Burning” (1977) is a massive, complex, difficult slab of wood pulp, perhaps the most difficult of any “Great” novel I have read. In 1953 Vice-President Richard Nixon is busy organising the public execution of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage. It was a Big Show, Times Square, Count Basie & his Orchestra, prime-time TV. America expected, deserved, no less in the Free World’s fight against the Forces of Evil. Meanwhile a scatalogical Uncle Sam mounts a platitudinous defence of the American Dream against “The Phantom”, the embodiment of Global Communism & all-round threat to national security.
“The Public Burning”‘s setting is the US of McCarthyism & the Korean War. It looks back at the violent origins of the nation, forward to when “Tricky Dicky” has the top job, bombing South East Asia back to the Stone Age while using the State apparatus to burglarise his opponents at home. The book exposes & satirises the falsity underpinning America’s political principles & its symbols of power. It nails how Nixon was a product of these distortions, why he would want & be able to pursue his poisonous agenda. The book, alongside Coppola’s movie “The Conversation”, stands at the apex of post-Watergate American art. Its prescience, as the Presidents Bush found new “Phantoms” to oppose, as the USA continued to promote the export of Democracy via the gun barrel, unopposed by a compliant media, has enhanced its stature over the years. How many times have I been reminded of “The Public Burning” in the 21st Century ? Lots.
It was 10 years before another Robert Coover novel. I guess that I was still blown away, still trying to get my head round the previous one. I’m sure that his later works are of a fine quality but the lightning flash, the blinding clash of language, philosophy, humour & politics I discovered in these two books don’t come around here too often. I need to get back to these brilliant things.