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Students and practitioners of contemporary cultural criticism and interdisciplinary studies know how frequently studies of apparently limited features of culture may open up larger vistas, engendering deeper understanding of how the central aspects ofthat culture work. Two recent books on seemingly radically opposed subjects—sport and play in American fiction, the literature of the Vietnam War—are new, valuable reminders of where those cultural portals exist and what may be glimpsed through them.
"Sportsworld is the American environment: we need look no further for the pattern of our lives, the rhythms, victories, and defeats," asserts Christian K. Messenger in Sport and the Spirit of Play in Contemporary American Fiction. Identifying the centrality of sport in contemporary American life and testing that obsession against conceptions of the play spirit from Kant and Schiller to Gadamer and Derrida, Messenger offers what he calls "a structural field description of sports fiction," a fluid, wide-ranging analysis of the reciprocal bonds between life and art, sport and play, in American culture. If sport itself is a tension-ridden combination of free play and voracious competition, a meeting of individual desire and cultural inhibition, so, too, suggests the author are the works of art—the novels, plays, and films—that find in sport one of our chief cultural signifiers.
A worthy successor to the author's previous work, Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner (1981), the new book extends discussion of American works on individual and team sport to the present moment. In his Introduction the author offers the keys to his structural approach—multiple uses of A. J. Greimas' "semiotic square" to show the dynamics, tensions, connections, [End Page 828] and contradictions between sport and play in America. Messenger puts the square through many permutations, but the dominant figure has four meaningful categories at its corners: play, individual sports heroism, collective sports heroism, and antiheroism. The book, however, although informed by such structuralist tools, is not finally constrained or controlled by them. Rather, Messenger works fairly and carefully with texts, not allowing the integrity and uniqueness of individual works to be coldly categorized or mechanically slotted into the structural devices. At times the prose becomes theoretically dense, and fashionable critics and schools make brief, not entirely integrated appearances, but overall the relationship between method and text remains organic, adaptable, and illuminating.
There is a satisfying comprehensiveness to the study prompted by the author's reasonable three-part structure. In Part One, "Individual Sports Heroism: Male Physical Self-Definition," the author traces the decline of the ritual male sports hero from Hemingway through James Dickey and Thomas McGuane, focusing most centrally on the works of Norman Mailer and fictions of boxing. Part Two, "Individual Sports Heroism: Responses of the Play Spirit," opens wider cultural vistas as the author examines the clash between individual play and institutional constriction in the works of Ken Kesey, Robert Coover, and others. Part Two also contains full discussions of the decline of the school sports hero, the antihero, or "witness," in American sports fiction, and women's sports fiction. Part Three, "Collective Sports Heroism: Fictions of Team Sport," broadens Messenger's cultural web of social, political, and economic aspects even more, with substantial analyses of the fictions of football, baseball, and basketball, discussions that both please and entertain as they assess well-known sports authors—Dan Jenkins, Peter Gent, Robert Coover, Philip Roth, and many others—but also survey more obscure or less publicized authors and texts. Those familiar with American sports fiction will meet a full roster of cagey veterans and hopeful rookies and will find in Sport and the Spirit of Play in Contemporary American Fiction a worthy, commodious American field of play.
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