“Toproduce a mighty book,” Melville says in Moby-Dick, “you must choose a mighty theme. No greatand enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.” Howard Jacobson setsout to prove Melville wrong with TheMighty Walzer, a novel that features ping-pong, a “flea” in thekingdom of sport, at least in English-speaking locales. Originally published inBritain in 1999, The Mighty Walzer is now being released in the United States to takeadvantage of the author’s new, exportable stature as winner of the Man BookerPrize last year for The Finkler Question.
A promising junior playerin England in the 1950s, Jacobson could quote George Plimpton to Melville: “Thesmaller the ball used in the sport,” Plimpton wrote, “the better thebook.” When I was playing and writing about basketball, a baseball-playingfriend would torture me with his adaptation of Plimpton: “the smaller theball, the greater the skill.” Now I play ping-pong, understand thechallenge of chasing flea balls, and admire Jacobson’s courage.
Readers with littleaffection for literary sports novels such as, for example, Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association or Don DeLillo’s End Zone, should know that The Mighty Walzer is primarily a coming-of-age story. It containsenough ping-pong to demonstrate Jacobson’s authority (paddles, strokes,strategies, lore) and to function as a metaphor for Oliver Walzer, a closed-inboy from a Jewish family in a dreary Manchester neighborhood, but sport doesnot dominate the book as it does Coover’s and DeLillo’s novels. The Mighty Walzer is closer to thatbig-ball (and itchy balls) basketball book RabbitRun.
Until Oliver discoversping-pong, he spends hours in the bathroom cutting up family photos of women,pasting the heads on bodies in soft porn magazines, and using them formasturbatory stimuli. His father forces Oliver out to join a ping-pong club,where he feels relatively comfortable with almost equally introvertedteammates. As a teenager, Oliver wins tournaments, manages to have a girlfellate him, almost has sex with the ping-pong playing Lorna Peachley (whom hebelieves he loves), eventually parlays his skill into acceptance by Cambridge’s”Golem College,” and competes at the ping-pong table for theuniversity. But Oliver suffers from self-diagnosed “grandiosity.” Whenhis heroic expectations are confuted and, in his mind, mocked—no one watcheshis victories, girls don’t flock to a champion, and his college mates don’tunderstand his talents—Oliver falls half in love with defeat, with failure. Helets opponents win, gives up on Lorna, commits to dead-end studies.
Later in life, Oliverbelieves that ping-pong—a crucial source of his identity and his way out intothe world—was itself enclosed: “It was too small. A parlour game. Itsuffered from too modest a conception of itself. Ping-pong—what kind of name was that? Table tennis was hardly anybetter….Whiff Waff was another one they tried. Meaning what? Somethinginsubstantial, piffling, neither here nor there, like swatting at flies.”
Oliver’s late recognitionof his game’s limitations is common in sports fiction, but Jacobson artfullycomplicates his narrator’s conventional wisdom. Oliver tells his story fortyyears after most of its events, and his insistence on a direct line ofpsychological cause and effect—grandiose desire leading to “voluptuousdefeatism”—isn’t wholly believable. A tour guide in Venice in the novel’spresent, the 60ish Oliver returns to Manchester and finds that his oldteammates remember events differently—more positively—than he does.
In a revealingautobiographical essay about ping-pong, which takes some sentences from hisnovel, Jacobson says that he remembers his losses but none of his victories. Healso says that, whether or not a player is still active, the game pervadesconsciousness, “becomes the very model of experience itself.” OliverWalzer has these same psychological peculiarities, and Jacobson uses them toplay a game of narrational unreliability with his reader/opponent, a game likethat played by his character Phil Radic, whom Oliver calls a “master”of “finding angles you’d never have guessed were there.” Oliver’squestionable reliability adds a second, welcome meaning to “coming of age”:Jacobson implies that coming into old age may distort memory of the firstcoming of age, may project back onto youth a sense of late-life failings.
As a narrator, Oliver is abit overbearing, more than a little digressive, and, yes, occasionallygrandiose in his style, as the title suggests by echoing the name of the formerOlympic champion Jan-Ove Waldner. Fortunately, Oliver is also a sharp-eyedobserver of others. Beckett has a character say, “Nothing is funnier thanunhappiness,” and Jacobson knows how to put his unhappy narrator intocomic situations. First is the Walzer family—a dumb but ambitious father, along-worrying mother, and her three sisters who seem to Oliver to wear an “S”for spinster on their chests. Aunt Fay conducts an extended telephone courtshipwith an obscene caller. Aunt Dora betrays aunt Dolly by running off with theman who had been courting Dolly.
Oliver’s young Jewishteammates all have physical quirks and are humorously two dimensional,combining a passion for ping-pong with some other obsession, such as anexaggerated sensitivity to anti-Semitism, the rigorous classification ofoperatic tenors, or the development of skirt-chasing expertise. The best ofthem, Sheeny Waxman, has an identifying tic, which he somehow turns to eroticadvantage. The girl with whom Oliver is successful (and later unsuccessfullymarries) sleeps with anyone who disrespects her to show her disrespect for sucha person, a logic much admired by the boys in the novel except, of course,Oliver.
After Oliver, the novel’s dominantcharacter is his father, Joel, a womanizer who sells junk or “swag”(a Britishism) or “tsatskes” (a Yiddishism) at outdoor markets.”Tsatske,” which can mean an attractive unconventional woman or aninexpensive showy trinket, is a key concept in the book, for Oliver uses theword to describe ping-pong and other activities or people that he feels havelittle intrinsic value. Joel Walzer is the king of “tsatskes,” aswell as the duke of failure. Here is Oliver describing some of his father’smiscellaneous and almost fail-sure goods:
Swagtook in chalk love-in-a-cottage wall plaques and shepherd and shepherdessfigurines and hot-water bottles that burst when you filled them with hot waterand torches that didn’t work in the dark and plastic colanders with no holes inthem and hula hoops and shockproof deep-sea divers’ watches and jardinières andfolding chairs that could kill when they sprang shut and dolls that sometimessaid “Mama” but more often than not didn’t and leatherettewriting-pad compendiums and dictionaries that had no definitions in them andplastic potties to go under the bed….
Oliver spends much of hislife fleeing his father’s ignorance and world of swag, and yet Oliver’s (andJacobson’s) book is itself like a jammed and disorderly display of “tsatskes”—onebeautiful woman and many comic trinkets about Eastern-European Jewishimmigrants, sex-starved adolescents, players of a stupidly named sport, andCambridge dolts (both faculty and students). The Finkler Question was the first comic novel to win the ManBooker Prize. I think The Mighty Walzeris more amusing—not as economically constructed as The Finkler Question, but also without that novel’s ideologicalabstractions and thudding satire.
Jacobson has been calledBritain’s Philip Roth, and one can see why with the Portnoyian masturbationscenes in The Mighty Walzer. ButJacobson has said he’d prefer to be known as the “Jewish Jane Austen.”Although his pop- and sub-culture subjects are far from Austen’s, Jacobson hassome of her humane humor and forgiving wit. Will these qualities make The Mighty Walzer, contra Melville, an “enduringvolume”? It has lasted twelve years, and I don’t believe it’s grandiose tosay that, for now, it is the Great English Language Ping-Pong Novel.