Importance of local sporting heroes always resonated with Roth
Sideline Cut:‘Yeah, I wanted to be a famous baseball player” Philip Roth joked of his early ambitions in a recent television interview as he stood outside his childhood home in Newark. It should be no surprise that the big cheese of American fiction nourished the universal boyhood dream of immortality and fame through the theatre of sport. He fell in with 99.9 per cent of all living souls in realising very quickly that that was never going to happen.
And so like everyone else, Roth found something else to do, which in his case was to become the most provocative and brilliant fiction writer of the past half century.
But even as he scandalised the Jewish seniors in his formative years and pretty much everyone else along the way, the cacophony of cheering and radio/television commentary and score lines and the dazzling feats of great stars and the pure joy of playing games on the street can be heard in the background of so many of his books.
Sport, more so than Elvis or Sinatra, is the soundtrack to American life – you just have to walk up any street to hear it – and it bubbles away in so many of Roth’s books. And there was something of the sportsman’s acceptance about Roth’s recent decision to bow out of the writing game at the age of 78, with no great fuss or fanfare.
It is hardly a coincidence that the hero of what now seems to be Roth’s last book – Nemesis – was a “playground director” named Bucky Cantor, on whom the gods had conferred poor eyesight to confound the fabulously athletic frame. And so instead of fighting in the second World War, Bucky finds himself teaching sports to kids during a muggy summer when the local community was reaching a state of paranoia about the polio epidemic.
And when you read the brief synopsis of the stunning rise to grace in American Pastoral of Swede Levov, the preternaturally gifted high school star of basketball, football and baseball who became, at a very tender age, a symbol of pride and adoration in his local community, you could be reading about any of the myriad hurling and football prodigies who have sprung up in the townlands of Kilkenny or Tyrone down the ages.
“And how did this affect him – the glorification, the sanctification, of every hook shot he sank, every pass he leaped up and caught, every line drive he rifled for a double down the left-field line? Is this what made him that staid and stone-faced boy? Or was the mature-seeming sobriety the outward manifestation of an arduous inward struggle to keep in check the narcissism that an entire community was ladling with love?”
Isn’t that what is meant when GAA peo’’ple wonder about “what happened” to the great minors who never quite blossomed into the great senior players they were destined to become? That some of them lose in that very struggle?
The All-Ireland championship offers the best players – or at least those from the strongest counties – the chance to play in front of 80,000 people if they reach the final . . . to showcase their talents in front of a crowd equal to that of Wembley or Yankee Stadium or any of the great arenas you care to name . . . and to then return to the cradle of their local town where they are treated as special?