The Great American Novel

BOOK: The Great American Novel
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CONTENTS

T
ITLE
P
AGE

C
OPYRIGHT
N
OTICE

D
EDICATION

E
PIGRAPH

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

P
ROLOGUE

1.
Home Sweet Home

2.
The Visitors' Line-Up

3.
In the Wilderness

4.
Every Inch a Man

5.
The Temptation of Roland Agni

6.
The Temptation of Roland Agni (
continued
)

7.
The Return of Gil Gamesh; or, Mission from Moscow

E
PILOGUE

B
OOKS BY
P
HILIP
R
OTH

C
OPYRIGHT

 

To Barbara Sproul

 

… the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff …

Frank Norris,
The Responsibilities of the Novelist

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The baseball strategy credited to Isaac Ellis in chapters five, six, and seven is borrowed in large part from
Percentage Baseball
by Earnshaw Cook (M.I.T. Press, 1966).

The curve-ball formula in chapter five was devised by Igor Sikorsky and can be found in “The Hell It Doesn't Curve,” by Joseph F. Drury, Sr. (see
Fireside Book of Baseball,
Simon and Schuster, 1956, pp. 98–101).

The tape-recorded recollections of professional baseball players that are deposited at the Library of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and are quoted in Lawrence Ritter's
The Glory of Their Times
(Macmillan, 1966) have been a source of inspiration to me while writing this book, and some of the most appealing locutions of these old-time players have been absorbed into the dialogue.

I also wish to thank Jack Redding, director of the Hall of Fame Library, and Peter Clark, curator of the Hall of Fame Museum, for their kindness to me during my visits to Cooperstown.

P. R.

PROLOGUE

C
ALL ME
S
MITTY
. That's what everybody else called me—the ballplayers, the bankers, the bareback riders, the baritones, the bartenders, the bastards, the best-selling writers (excepting Hem, who dubbed me Frederico), the bicyclists, the big game hunters (Hem the exception again), the billiards champs, the bishops, the blacklisted (myself included), the black marketeers, the blonds, the bloodsuckers, the bluebloods, the bookies, the Bolsheviks (some of my best friends, Mr. Chairman—what of it!), the bombardiers, the bootblacks, the bootlicks, the bosses, the boxers, the Brahmins, the brass hats, the British (
Sir
Smitty as of '36), the broads, the broadcasters, the broncobusters, the brunettes, the black bucks down in Barbados (
Meestah
Smitty), the Buddhist monks in Burma, one Bulkington, the bullfighters, the bullthrowers, the burlesque comics and the burlesque stars, the bushmen, the bums, and the butlers. And that's only the letter B, fans, only
one
of the Big Twenty-Six!

Why, I could write a whole book just on the types beginning with X who have called out in anguish to yours truly—make it an encyclopedia, given that mob you come across in one lifetime who like to tell you they are quits with the past. Smitty, I've got to talk to somebody. Smitty, I've got a story for you. Smitty, there is something you ought to know. Smitty, you've got to come right over. Smitty, you won't believe it but. Smitty, you don't know me but. Smitty, I'm doing something I'm ashamed of. Smitty, I'm doing something I'm proud of. Smitty, I'm not doing anything—what should I do, Smit? In transcontinental buses, lowdown bars, high-class brothels (for a change of scenery, let's move on to C), in cabarets, cabanas, cabins, cabooses, cabbage patches, cable cars, cabriolets (you can look it up), Cadillacs, cafés, caissons, calashes (under the moon, a' course), in Calcutta, California, at Calgary, not to be confused with Calvary (where in '38 a voice called “Smitty!”—and Smitty, no fool, kneeled), in campaniles, around campfires, in the Canal Zone, in candlelight (see B for blonds and brunettes), in catacombs, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, in captivity, in caravans, at card games, on cargo ships, in the Caribbean, on carousels, in Casablanca (the place
and
the movie, wherein, to amuse Bogey, I played a walk-on role), in the Casbah, in casinos, castaway off coasts, in castles (some in air, some not), in Catalonia (with Orwell), Catania, catatonia, in catastrophes, in catboats, in cathedrals, in the Catskills (knaidlach and kreplach with Jenny G.—I taste them yet!), in the Caucasus (Comrade Smitty—and proud of it, Mr. Chairman!), in caves, in cellars, in Central America, in Chad, in a chaise longue (see under B burlesque stars), in chalets, in chambers, in chancery, in a charnel house (a disembodied voice again), in Chattanooga (on Johnny's very choo-choo), in checkrooms, in Cherokee country, in Chicago—look, let's call it quits at Christendom, let's say
there,
that's been Smitty's beat! Father confessor, marital adviser, confidant, straight man, Solomon, stooge, psychiatrist, sucker, sage, go-between, medicine man, whipping boy, sob sister, debunker, legal counselor, loan service, all-night eardrum, and sober friend—you name it, pick a guise, any guise, starting with each and every one of the Big Twenty-Six, and rest assured, Smitty's worn that hat on one or two thousand nights in his four score and seven on this billion-year-old planet in this trillion-year-old solar system in this zillion-year-old galaxy that we have the audacity to call “ours”!

O what a race we are, fans! What a radiant, raffish, raggedy, rakish, rambunctious, rampaging, ranting, rapacious, rare, rash, raucous, raunchy, ravaged, ravenous, realistic, reasonable, rebellious, receptive, reckless, redeemable, refined, reflective, refreshing, regal, regimented, regrettable, relentless, reliable, religious, remarkable, remiss, remorseful, repellent, repentant, repetitious (!!!!), reprehensible, repressed, reproductive, reptilian, repugnant, repulsive, reputable, resentful, reserved, resigned, resilient, resistant, resistible, resourceful, respectable, restless, resplendent, responsible, responsive, restrained, retarded, revengeful, reverential, revolting, rhapsodical, rhythmical, ribald, rickety, ridiculous, righteous, rigorous, riotous, risible, ritualistic, robustious (
adj. Archaic or Humorous
[pick 'em], meaning “rough, rude or boisterous,” according to N.W.), roguish, rollicking, romantic, rompish, rotten, rough-and-ready, rough-and-tumble, rough-housing, rowdyish, rude, rueful, rugged, ruined, rummy (
chiefly Brit.
don'cha know.
Slang
odd; queer), rundown, runty, ruthless race!

A' course that's just one man's opinion. Fella name a' Smith; first name a' Word.

*   *   *

And just who
is
Word Smith? Fair enough. Short-winded, short-tempered, short-sighted as he may be, stiff-jointed, soft-bellied, weak-bladdered, and so on down to his slippers, anemic, arthritic, diabetic, dyspeptic, sclerotic, in dire need of a laxative, as he will admit to the first doctor or nurse who passes his pillow,
and in perpetual pain
(that's the last you'll hear about that), he's not cracked quite yet: if his life depended on it, the man in the street could not name three presidents beginning with the letter J, or tell you whether the Pope before this one wore glasses or not, so surely he is not about to remember Word Smith, though it so happened old W.S. cracked a new pack of Bicycles with more than one Chief Exec, one night nearly brought down the republic by cleaning out the entire cabinet, so that at morn—pink peeking over the Potomac, you might say—the Secretary of the Treasury had to be restrained by the Secretary of the Interior from dipping his mitt in the national till to save his own shirt at stud, in a manner of speaking.

Then there are the Popes. Of course no poker, stud, straight,
or
draw, with Pontiffs, other than penny ante, but rest assured, Smitty here in his heyday, kneepans down on terra firma, has kissed his share of rings, and if no longer up to the kneeling-down, still has starch enough left in these half-palsied lips for tasting the papal seal and (if there should be any takers) touching somewhat tumescent flesh to the peachier parts of the softer sex, afore he climbs aboard that sleeper bound for Oblivion. Chucklin': “George, what time she due at Pearly Gates?” Shufflin': “Don' you worry none, Mistuh Smitty, I call ya' in time fo' you to shave up and eat a good heffy breakfass' fo' we gets dere.” “
If
we gets there, George. Conductor says we may all be on a through train, from what he hears.” “Tru'? To where, Mistuh Smitty? De end of de line?” (Chorus behind, ahummin' and astrummin', “Tru' train, tru' train, choo-choo on tru', I wanna choo-choo on home widout delay!”) “Seems there isn't any ‘end' to this line, George.” Scratchin' his woolly head: “Well, suh, day don' say nuttin' 'bout dat in de schedule.” “Sure they do, old George, down in the fine print there: ‘Stops only to receive passengers.'” “Which tru' train dat, Mistuh Smitty?” “Through train bound for Oblivion, George.” “‘Oblivion'? Dat don't sound lak no stop—dat de name of a little girl!” (“Tru' train, tru' train, lem-me choo-choo on home!”)

Smitty! Prophet to porters, padre to pagans, peacemaker for polygamists, provider for panhandlers, probation officer to pickpockets, pappy to parricides, parent to prostitutes, “Pops” to pinups, Paul to pricks, plaintalker to pretenders, parson to Peeping Toms, protector to pansies, practical nurse to paranoids—pal, you might say, to pariahs and pests of every stripe, spot, stigma, and stain, or maybe just putty in the paws of personae non gratae, patsy in short to pythons. Not a bad title that, for Smitty's autobio.

Or how's about
Poet to Presidents
? For 'twasn't all billiards on the Biggest Boss's baize, sagas of sport and the rarest of rums, capped off with a capricious predawn plunge in the Prez's pool. Oh no. Contract bridge, cribbage, canasta, and casino crony, sure; blackjack bluffer and poker-table personality, a' course, a' course; practiced my pinochle, took 'em on, one and all, at twenty-one; suffered stonily (and snoozed secretly) through six-hour sieges of solitaire, rising to pun when they caught me napping, “Run out of patience, Mr. P.?”; listen, I played lotto on the White House lawn, cut a First Child for Old Maid in the Oval Office on the eve of national disaster … but that doesn't explain what I was there for. Guessed yet how I came to be the intimate of four American presidents? Figured me out? Respectful of their piteous portion of privacy, I call them henceforth ABC, DEF, GHI, and JKL, but as their words are public record, who in fact these four were the reader with a little history will quickly surmise. My capital concern?

I polished their prose.

GHI, tomb who I was closer than any, would always make a point to have me in especially to meet the foreign dignitaries; and his are the speeches and addresses upon which my influence is most ineradicably inked. “Prime Minister,” he would say—or Premier, or Chairman, or Chancellor, or General, or Generalissimo, or Colonel, or Commodore, or Commander, or Your Excellency, or Your Highness, or Your Majesty—“I want you to meet the outstanding scribbler in America. I do not doubt that you have a great language too, but I want you to hear just what can be done with this wonderful tongue of ours by a fellow with the immortal gift of gab. Smitty, what do you call that stuff where all the words begin with the same letter?” “Alliteration, Mr. President.” “Go ahead then. Gimme some alliteration for the Prime Minister.” Of course it was not so easy as GHI thought, even for me, to alliterate under pressure, but when GHI said “Gimme” you gam, get me? “The reason they call that ‘elimination,' Prime Minister, is on account of you leave out all the other letters but the one. Right, Smit?” “Well, yes, Mr. President, if they did call it that, that would be why.” “And how about a list for the Prime Minister, while you're at it?” “A list of what, Mr. President?” “Prime Minister, what is your pleasure? This fella here knows the names of just about everything there is, so take your choice. He is a walking dictionary. Fish, fruits, or flimflam? Well now, I believe I just did some myself, didn't I?” “Yes, you did, Mr. President. Alliteration.” “Now you go ahead, Smitty, you give the Prime Minister an example of one of your lists, and then a little balance, why don't you? Why, I think I love that balance more than I love my wife. Neither-nor, Smitty, give him neither-nor, give him we cannot-we shall not-we must not, and then finish him off with perversion.” “Perversion, sir, or inversion?” “Let's leave that to the guest of honor. Which is your preference, Your Honor? Smitty here is a specialist in both.”

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