In Our Gang, the novel that precedes The Great American Novel, Philip Roth imagines a deviant baseball player who is out to corrupt Americaís pastime. This novel took up this idea a notch by having a narrator, the alliteration-loving Word Smith, former sportswriter, bring to light the history of the Patriot League, a chapter in American baseball that was expunged from the history books in the same way figures were removed from photos in Stalinís Soviet Union.
There are two baseball leagues in the USA: the National and the American. Roth creates a third one, the Patriot, in order to satirise the 20th century history and culture of the United States. Through the Patriot League, Roth tackles racism, racial emancipation, anti-Semitism, celebrity cult, hero-worshipping, capitalism, the media, JFK, the Monroe Doctrine, McCarthyism, and of course Communist hysteria.
Holding the narrative together is the chronicle of the last years of the Ruppert Mundys, a baseball constituted mostly of freaks (for the time) and maladjusted: a dwarf, a one-armed man, a one-legged man, drunks, whoremongers, and egotists. After their ballpark is sold to the US Navy in order to create a naval base, the Mundys start playing all their games on the road. Using this picaresque technique of the journey, Roth keeps the novel always fresh with new adventures and characters and allows him to critique several aspects of US culture.
The novel rises in absurdity until a Communist plot is uncovered to undermine the United States by ridiculing its national pastime. Since this subplot is foreshadowed in the Word Smithís prologue, I found reading the novel a tense, exciting experience since I was anxious to read it in all its details. What was amazing was how Roth managed to tie up the plot with so many plot points from the first chapter, effectively tying up all loose ends.
One last part I loved and read with tears in my eyes was when Word Smith, unsuccessfully trying to publish this novel since no one believes these events ever happened, likens himself, in a letter, to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
Mr. Solzhenitsyn was not able to find a publisher for this work in the Soviet Union and subsequently has been vilified and traduced by his fellow Soviet writers for allowing his manuscript to be smuggled out to the West for publication. The reason Mr. Solzhenitsyn is despised in Russia is that his version of Russian history happens not to correspond with the version that is promulgated with by the powers-that-be over there. In short, he refuses to accept lies for truth and myth for reality.
A bit further he adds:
If I have followed Mr. Solzhenitsynís tragic circumstances with more than ordinary interest and concern during the months he has been in the news here, it is because I am an author who has for years lived in something like the same situation in America as he does in Soviet Russia.
The full letter, and the identity of the receiver, constitutes one of the best endings to a Philip Roth ever, a classic example of blurring the thin line between facts and fiction topped only by the final page of Operation Shylock.