Review: Roger L. Simon’s ‘The GOAT’

A tennis pro pays a steep price to be the Greatest of All Time

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August 17, 2019

It was three or four years ago that the word GOAT finally gnawed through the fence of minor sports blogs and started gamboling in the greener fields of television and newspaper commentary—GOAT, that is, as an acronym for "Greatest of All Time."

Thus, for example, fans of the New England Patriots wear goat's-head masks to games at their football stadium in Foxborough, Mass. If you suspect that's to signify the Satanic practices that have brought the team three Super Bowl championships in the past five years, you'd be right, of course. But the claimed meaning is that the Patriots' 20-year quarterback Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback, possibly the greatest player at any position, ever to stride out on the gridiron. The GOAT.

Twenty years ago, to call someone the goat would be to assign blame for a loss. Bill Buckner was the goat of the 1986 World Series, letting a ball roll through his bandied legs. Steve Smith was the goat who cost the Edmonton Oilers a chance at the Stanley Cup that same year, glancing the puck off his own goalie's skate and scoring a goal for the other team.

This older sense (derived from scapegoat: the figure blamed for leading us to doom) hasn't died out. In any sports context, goat and GOAT are butting their horns against each other, and I've been waiting for someone to take literary advantage of the confusion. And that's just what Roger L. Simon has done in his new novel, The GOAT.

Sports novels are hard to get right. Even the best of them rank in the second or third tier of fiction. Nabokov's chess novel, The Luzhin Defense (1930), and Kawabata's The Master of Go (1951) were high literary successes at novelizing intellectual games, but the best books about physical sports are typically nonfiction. When sports are already commonly taken as metaphors for life, and sports figures as archetypes of human being, what's left for an artist to do? A good example of the difficulty might be the competent and successful 1950s middlebrow author William Brinkley, who broke down completely when he tried his hand at sports fiction, in the sadly fumbling tennis novel Breakpoint (1978).

Still, David Storey's lightly fictionalized This Sporting Life (1960) isn't bad. That Championship Season, Jason Miller's 1972 play about the secrets of youth as we grow old, is good, without containing much on sports. I've always had a soft spot for David Carkeet's The Greatest Slump of All Time (1984), which tells the comic tale of a baseball team that manifests every psychological disorder known to Freud, along with Fat City (1969), Leonard Gardner's grim tale of a washed-up boxer attempting a comeback. And now, in this category of successful popular fiction that uses sports to strive for something deeper, we should add Simon's The GOAT.

The GOAT is the story of a weekend tennis player who, in essence, sells his soul to become a star—the greatest of all time. Such bargains never end well. Simon was nominated for an Academy Award (for his work on the screenplay for the 1989 Enemies, a Love Story, based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale). And like William Goldman (a screenwriting GOAT)—like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West, for that matter—Simon is not afraid to mine his Hollywood experiences for artistic ore.

And so The GOAT follows the Faustian adventures of Dan Gelber, an aging screenwriter with back problems. When surgery fails to help him, he turns to the quackery of Himalaya herbs, offered by a guru who (this is California, after all) practices in a strip mall in Reseda.

The herbs have miraculous effect, promising to restore Gelber's youth, if only he will swim deeper into the net. Which he does, of course, trekking off to the Himalayas to be transformed into an entirely new person—an athletic man in his twenties who returns to America pretending to be a tennis player from Tennessee named Jay Reynolds. A phenomenal tennis player, as it happens. And rapidly he progresses from local to international success, qualifying for Wimbledon where he will play the likes of Roger Federer and have a chance to prove himself the GOAT of tennis.

Most readers first discovered Roger Simon through his mystery novels about the 1960s student radical turned California private eye, Moses Wine—the best of which probably remains The Big Fix (1973), made into a 1978 movie with Richard Dreyfuss. A dozen books later, Simon is probably best known for his political work, transformed from a conventional liberal to a well-known conservative by such events as the O.J. Simpson verdict and the attacks of September 11. He helped found Pajamas Media (now PJ Media) in 2004 and writes regularly on socio-politics.

Which is all fine, of course, but he started as a solid middlebrow artist, and he's returned to that art in the nonpolitical The GOAT. The only possibly politicized element is the fact that Simon has self-published The GOAT, which is an interesting option for an established author. Arguing that publishers do not know how to promote books and claim too high a percentage of the purchase price for the supposed power of their imprints, Simon has set out to become his own publisher, offering the book through online sellers. In its way, this is of a piece with the origins of Pajamas Media, which took its ironic name as a swipe at what was called "mainstream media" in those days—proclaiming that the online world of blogs had broken through the old gatekeepers of news, which had long ceased to hold to the political impartiality that had justified their existence.

In the story itself, as The GOAT flows from Hollywood to international tennis, the novelist's eye is on the questions of human aging. Even the light comedy of Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (1954) found that life relived as a sports star isn't all that fantasy suggests it should be, and in The GOAT, Dan-Gelber-turned-Jay-Reynolds discovers that he can't quite forget the children of his first life. Can't quite apply the hard-won knowledge of age to the fresh-seeming problems of youth. Can't quite use success and fame to solve the puzzle of the soul and God's shaping of the proper arc of human life. Maybe the main character is the fresh young GOAT. Or maybe he's just an old goat.

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