Friday, November 5, 2010

Philip Roth's Literary Javelin

Longtime readers of the Book Review may recall George Plimpton’s classic 1992 essay “The Smaller the Ball, the Better the Book,” which held that when it comes to sports literature, there is an inverse relation between the size of the thing people are trying to hit and how much fun it is to read about it.

Since Plimpton aired his Small Ball Theory, other writers have attempted to expand his insights to sports like badminton and hockey. But what about the javelin? Curiously, two admirable novels published this year have given the need for a less spherical theory of sports literature sudden urgency.

In the final scene of Philip Roth’s “Nemesis” (reviewed for us this weekend by Leah Hager Cohen), a group of boys recall the day the doomed playground director Bucky Cantor showed them how to hurl the javelin. After taking care to stretch his groin (phallic symbol alert!), Bucky let it fly with the majestic authority of Hercules himself:

You could see each of his muscles bulging when he released it into the air. He let out a strangulated yowl of effort (one we all went around imitating for days afterward), a noise expressing the essence of him — the naked battle cry of striving excellence. … It was as though our playground director had turned into a primordial man, hunting for food on the plains where he foraged, taming the wilds by the might of his hand. Never were we more in awe of anyone. Through him, we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender.

So far, so Freudian. But as it turns out, “The Ask,” Sam Lipsyte’s satire of early-middle-aged male slackerdom, also climaxes emotionally with the throwing of a javelin. While Roth’s is a sturdy midcentury javelin, however, exploding out of Bucky’s hands with the force and confidence of the American Century itself, Lipsyte’s spear — thrown by the fortysomething loser Milo Burke — is a wobbly, wonky, post-Vietnam javelin, dropping quickly to earth like a semiflaccid … O.K., you get the idea.

“I threw the javelin then,” Milo recalls of his high school track-and-field career, “was no champion, not even a contender for regional ribbons, just good enough to know the happiness of making your body a part of that spear, to get a good trot up to the throwing line, to slip into a rabbity sideways hop and snap your hips, launch a steel-tipped proxy of yourself at the sky.”

His own life trajectory has been even less triumphant, “like a javelin that tails and wobbles and does not drive into the turf but skids to a halt at a slightly less-than-average distance, a mediocre distance, from the lumped lime line.”

That’s a pretty nice literary throw. But wait! As it happens, Lipsyte — himself a shot-putter in high school — also anticipated a detail in yet another big fall literary release.

In “The Ask,” Milo, a failed painter, takes a job building decks in Queens. In Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” the reluctant rock star Richard Katz chucks his music career to build decks for Tribeca plutocrats.

“Decks are America,” Milo tells one of his own plutocrat friends. “The hidden platform where the patriarchy is reasserted.”

Unless javelins are.

View the original article here

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