Why give sportspeople a pass on the issues of the day?

Philip Roth passed away last week, but anyone who read last week’s column can breathe easy. I’m not going to try to write in his style the way I did with Tom Wolfe last Monday: the liver is safe in your fridge.

Why give sportspeople a pass on the issues of the day?

The tributes to Roth are still flowing in, though his approach to male-female relationships is one that’s bound to be reviewed intensively, if I can be as delicate as possible.

Like a lot of American writers he was interested in baseball and wrote a book about the sport - The Great American Novel, not one of his best. His view of the game informed his attitude to writing as well, given his famous aside about writing: “It’s just like baseball - you fail two-thirds of the time,” a line I like to trot out when I get the scorers wrong in a 3-19 to 2-25 hurling game.

Roth had the kind of late blooming that most writers don’t achieve with their early blooming, and going into his seventies he came up with stunning novels such as American Pastoral and The Human Stain, as well as the book many people have namechecked this week.

The Plot Against America is a counterfactual history of the US in the thirties, one in which a dangerous demagogue takes power with terrible consequences for minorities - Charles Lindbergh, in this case.

There’s a scene in that book where Seldon, a little boy stranded alone in a house in Kentucky, hundreds of miles from home, phones the main protagonist’s house back in New Jersey as darkness falls. . . those few pages of dialogue remain, for this reader, one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read.

It’s no surprise, given the ascent of Donald Trump, that many people focused on The Plot Against America last week, but American Pastoral has many resonances for the Ireland of last week in particular.

It’s the story of a husband and wife whose marriage crumbles when their daughter falls in with sixties radicals who are committed to violence. She bombs a post office, killing a man, and vanishes, her father and mother left behind to puzzle out what went wrong.

Now, looking back at the book, it’s striking the way sport figures as a marker of the father’s success in life.

Nicknamed Swede, he’s a multi-sport star in high school, lauded in a way familiar to anyone who watches Friday Night Lights.

The adulation and achievement of Swede’s youth carries him through adulthood, and in his own sly way Roth shows how that youthful success stagnates into complacency.

Insulated, comfortable, when the chaos of the times eventually stands at his door, Swede has to learn to function as an adult.

It’s of a piece with Roth’s other work that that learning process involves his wife, and the fault lines that widen under the stress of losing their daughter, but Swede’s sports background stays with me.

Specifically, the sense that it grants him an absolution from the knottier questions earlier in his life, questions reminiscent of our own time and place, particularly last week.

Not too many sportspeople put their heads above the parapet on the Eighth Amendment in the last few weeks, and many of those who did are retired: kudos to Tomás Ó Sé and Brian O’Driscoll, but we needed more Michael Dara McAuleys and Devin Toners.

There has to be something wrong if we give active sportspeople a pass on the issues of the day. Sport is part of the community, we’re told ad nauseam, not a separate department fenced off from reality, where the pressing issue is always the next game. Why then are athletes allowed to play the ‘I’m just here to play’ card?

That doesn’t do the athlete any favours, perpetuating as it does the notion that they’re overgrown children who must be protected from reality, their feats and follies in a green field somewhere becoming a deliberate escape, a conscious avoiding.

Hence Roth’s title, American Pastoral.

And its applicability everywhere, sadly. Sleep easy, Phil.

A boxing shrine in corner of Crosser

Last Saturday, I found myself in Crosshaven and, after a gap of 30 years or so, wandered into Cronin’s pub.

The last time I was there we had an unfortunate incident involving a lot of Murphy’s and some Club Milks — least said soonest mended — and I had forgotten the array of fantastic framed boxing photographs on the walls.

Any pub can produce a few blurry images of Muhammad Ali, but a pic of Willie Pep versus Sandy Saddler from 1950? The legendary Jack Johnson was pardoned posthumously by Donald Trump last year — not only does Johnson appear on the walls of Cronin’s, but so does Jess Willard, the man who beat him to collect the world title in 1915. Joe Louis and Max Schmeling figure on the wall of fame, but where else would you find a photograph of the man who refereed their rematch in New York?

Great to see one of my favourites there, too — Archie Moore, the Old Mongoose himself, who became light-heavyweight champion of the world at 36 and held the title for 10 years.

(He may have been even older, as his mother suggested he was born three years before the date Moore himself offered. “My mother should know, she was there,” he said on this point. “But so was I. I have given this a lot of thought, and have decided that I must have been there when I was born.”)

Moore figures in two great sportswriting features — AJ Leibling’s great ‘Ahab and Nemesis’ piece for the New Yorker and sparred with George Plimpton for Sports Illustrated — and both are well worth your time.

A man who had to wait for a world title shot until he’d reached an age when most boxers are long retired, Moore had a clear-eyed view of life. The man who’s neutral stands for nothing, he said once: he was right.

Respect to Cronin’s for keeping those pictures on the walls.

Lorrie Moore — the dream holiday companion

The sun coming out lately put me in mind of the forthcoming holidays and such like, and of packing a book for same.

Already sorted over here, thanks. Lorrie Moore’s short stories have always been held up as terrific — You’re Ugly, Too — but lately a collection of non-fiction pieces, See What Can Be Done, has popped up.

Each to his own, of course, but a book of Moore’s views on subjects as diverse as the musicals of Stephen Sondheim and the metaphors implicit in The Wire, never mind Jane Campion and VS Pritchett? In the suitcase before the suncream.

Guardians of the GAA

A couple of weeks ago I chatted to Noel Hynes, retired garda, about a book he and another member of the force, Brian Willoughby, had put together about gardaí who had also been inter-county footballers, hurlers, camogie players, and ladies footballers.

If you’re wondering why I’m revisiting this here, it’s because I got Noel’s name wrong in the piece.

Dunce’s cap, size XL. Noel himself was very decent about it but mea culpa.

Hoping sales are good for Guardians of the GAA despite the misleading info, and that the launch in Copper Face Jack’s went off well.

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Saturday, November 28, 2020

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