Two passages from a new novel:
"I missed three consecutive putts of less than three feet, indicating either emergent astigmatism or a severe character defect. The sense of that ball, so anxiously tapped, sliding by on the high side and hanging there as obdurately as the fact of pain in the world: it pulls one's insides quite awry."
"...a golf swing reveals more of a man than decades of mutual conversation.... We men are spirits naked to one another, on the golf course we move through one another like fish a-swim in one another's veins."
The writer is not P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote frequently and amusingly about golf. It is John Updike, a certifiably "serious" and "important" novelist; the book is A Month of Sundays (Knopf, $6.95).
The novel is about a fortyish minister who, having disgraced himself by indulging in a variety of extramarital adventures, is sent off to a curious retreat to straighten himself out. There he is required to play games (chiefly golf) during the day and to write his confessions in the evenings; the novel is the text of those confessions.
A Month of Sundays, it must be reported with regret, is inferior Updike. The minister-confessor is a windy fellow, given to laborious theological speculations and precious witticisms; Updike's writing, which usually treads a thin line between elegance and archness, here falls on the wrong side.
Yet for all its faults, A Month of Sundays offers an opportunity to observe how, in the work of one writer of substantial accomplishments, sport can be employed often and usefully for metaphoric purposes.
Sport first emerged as an important theme in Updike's fiction in 1960, with the publication of Rabbit, Run. Still the most powerful book he has written, it is the story of Rabbit Angstrom, a Pennsylvania smalltown high school basketball star whose life is an anticlimax once his playing career is over.
It is a persistent idea in Updike's fiction that sport is a metaphor for life. In Couples, which was published in 1968 and sold like tickets to Deep Throat because readers thought it was merely a novel about suburban sex, Updike stated the theme clearly: "...she was, emboldened by motherhood, playing the game that Tarbox had taught her, the game of tempting her fate." That, in one way or another, is the game that all Updike's characters play, Tom Marshfield in A Month of Sundays being merely the latest and one of the least successful.
It would be a disservice, even in the briefest discussion of sport in Updike's writing, to ignore a piece he wrote for The New Yorker in 1960. Entitled, in a semi-affectionate bow to the Boston press, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," it is an account of the last game Ted Williams played in the major leagues—a game he climaxed by hitting a home run in his last time at bat. One of the loveliest baseball pieces ever written—among other things, it calls Fenway "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark"—it has been widely anthologized and is a must for anyone who cares about sports literature. Like the best of Updike's fiction, it is at the least a minor classic.