The Mighty Walzer

"To produce a mighty book," Melville says in Moby-Dick, "you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea." Howard Jacobson sets out to prove Melville wrong with The Mighty Walzer, a novel that features ping-pong, a "flea" in the kingdom of sport, at least in English-speaking locales. Originally published in Britain in 1999, The Mighty Walzer is now being released in the United States to take advantage of the author's new, exportable stature as winner of the Man Booker Prize last year for The Finkler Question.


A promising junior player in England in the 1950s, Jacobson could quote George Plimpton to Melville: "The smaller the ball used in the sport," Plimpton wrote, "the better the book." When I was playing and writing about basketball, a baseball-playing friend would torture me with his adaptation of Plimpton: "the smaller the ball, the greater the skill." Now I play ping-pong, understand the challenge of chasing flea balls, and admire Jacobson's courage.


Readers with little affection 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 contains enough ping-pong to demonstrate Jacobson's authority (paddles, strokes, strategies, lore) and to function as a metaphor for Oliver Walzer, a closed-in boy from a Jewish family in a dreary Manchester neighborhood, but sport does not dominate the book as it does Coover's and DeLillo's novels. The Mighty Walzer is closer to that big-ball (and itchy balls) basketball book Rabbit Run.


Until Oliver discovers ping-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 for masturbatory stimuli. His father forces Oliver out to join a ping-pong club, where he feels relatively comfortable with almost equally introverted teammates. As a teenager, Oliver wins tournaments, manages to have a girl fellate him, almost has sex with the ping-pong playing Lorna Peachley (whom he believes he loves), eventually parlays his skill into acceptance by Cambridge's "Golem College," and competes at the ping-pong table for the university. But Oliver suffers from self-diagnosed "grandiosity." When his heroic expectations are confuted and, in his mind, mocked—no one watches his victories, girls don't flock to a champion, and his college mates don't understand his talents—Oliver falls half in love with defeat, with failure. He lets opponents win, gives up on Lorna, commits to dead-end studies.


Later in life, Oliver believes that ping-pong—a crucial source of his identity and his way out into the world—was itself enclosed: "It was too small. A parlour game. It suffered from too modest a conception of itself. Ping-pong—what kind of name was that? Table tennis was hardly any better….Whiff Waff was another one they tried. Meaning what? Something insubstantial, piffling, neither here nor there, like swatting at flies."


Oliver's late recognition of his game's limitations is common in sports fiction, but Jacobson artfully complicates his narrator's conventional wisdom. Oliver tells his story forty years after most of its events, and his insistence on a direct line of psychological cause and effect—grandiose desire leading to "voluptuous defeatism"—isn't wholly believable. A tour guide in Venice in the novel's present, the 60ish Oliver returns to Manchester and finds that his old teammates remember events differently—more positively—than he does.


In a revealing autobiographical essay about ping-pong, which takes some sentences from his novel, Jacobson says that he remembers his losses but none of his victories. He also says that, whether or not a player is still active, the game pervades consciousness, "becomes the very model of experience itself." Oliver Walzer has these same psychological peculiarities, and Jacobson uses them to play a game of narrational unreliability with his reader/opponent, a game like that played by his character Phil Radic, whom Oliver calls a "master" of "finding angles you'd never have guessed were there." Oliver's questionable reliability adds a second, welcome meaning to "coming of age": Jacobson implies that coming into old age may distort memory of the first coming of age, may project back onto youth a sense of late-life failings.


As a narrator, Oliver is a bit overbearing, more than a little digressive, and, yes, occasionally grandiose in his style, as the title suggests by echoing the name of the former Olympic champion Jan-Ove Waldner. Fortunately, Oliver is also a sharp-eyed observer of others. Beckett has a character say, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," and Jacobson knows how to put his unhappy narrator into comic situations. First is the Walzer family—a dumb but ambitious father, a long-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 courtship with an obscene caller. Aunt Dora betrays aunt Dolly by running off with the man who had been courting Dolly.


Oliver's young Jewish teammates all have physical quirks and are humorously two dimensional, combining a passion for ping-pong with some other obsession, such as an exaggerated sensitivity to anti-Semitism, the rigorous classification of operatic tenors, or the development of skirt-chasing expertise. The best of them, Sheeny Waxman, has an identifying tic, which he somehow turns to erotic advantage. The girl with whom Oliver is successful (and later unsuccessfully marries) sleeps with anyone who disrespects her to show her disrespect for such a person, a logic much admired by the boys in the novel except, of course, Oliver.


After Oliver, the novel's dominant character 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 an inexpensive showy trinket, is a key concept in the book, for Oliver uses the word to describe ping-pong and other activities or people that he feels have little intrinsic value. Joel Walzer is the king of "tsatskes," as well as the duke of failure. Here is Oliver describing some of his father's miscellaneous and almost fail-sure goods:

Swag took in chalk love-in-a-cottage wall plaques and shepherd and shepherdess figurines and hot-water bottles that burst when you filled them with hot water and torches that didn't work in the dark and plastic colanders with no holes in them and hula hoops and shockproof deep-sea divers' watches and jardinières and folding chairs that could kill when they sprang shut and dolls that sometimes said "Mama" but more often than not didn't and leatherette writing-pad compendiums and dictionaries that had no definitions in them and plastic potties to go under the bed….

Oliver spends much of his life fleeing his father's ignorance and world of swag, and yet Oliver's (and Jacobson's) book is itself like a jammed and disorderly display of "tsatskes"—one beautiful woman and many comic trinkets about Eastern-European Jewish immigrants, sex-starved adolescents, players of a stupidly named sport, and Cambridge dolts (both faculty and students). The Finkler Question was the first comic novel to win the Man Booker Prize. I think The Mighty Walzer is more amusing—not as economically constructed as The Finkler Question, but also without that novel's ideological abstractions and thudding satire.


Jacobson has been called Britain's Philip Roth, and one can see why with the Portnoyian masturbation scenes in The Mighty Walzer. But Jacobson 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 has some of her humane humor and forgiving wit. Will these qualities make The Mighty Walzer, contra Melville, an "enduring volume"? It has lasted twelve years, and I don't believe it's grandiose to say that, for now, it is the Great English Language Ping-Pong Novel.


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