When the biographer Meryle Secrest asked Stephen Sondheim what caused Leonard Bernstein’s composing career to fall apart, the West Side Story lyricist answered with a single word: “importantitis.” Lenny’s desire to be a profound artist had prompted him to pen the sort of tuneless, modernist dreck that he had begun his career abjuring. He went from writing the charming melodies of Candide to the drab and tedious music of Trouble In Tahiti.
Sensibly, the PJ Media CEO Emeritus and acclaimed screenwriter Roger Simon seems to have kept this lesson in mind in authoring his highly amusing new novel, The GOAT. A re-telling of the Faust legend set in the world of professional tennis, it is not an attempt to surpass Goethe in length or tragic weightiness. But Simon, never losing sight of the goal of entertaining his readers, nonetheless manages to slip in some serious ideas and a few important precepts.
His hero begins the story in circumstances with which the author is intimately familiar. Like Simon, Dan Gelber has been a successful Hollywood scribbler. (Among Simon’s many scripts from his long entertainment industry career was his adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies of the Love Story, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.) Also like Simon, he has reached an age at which he must begin to sum up his life and contemplate what might await him in eternity. This concern is given particular immediacy by a back problem that requires surgery. The procedure’s failure inspires him to take up an Indian cleaning lady’s recommendation that he visit a quack doctor for an alternative treatment involving herbs from the Himalayas. The medicine man is a peculiarly sprightly figure with a benign smile and a small office in a strip mall in the San Fernando Valley town of Reseda.
After Gelber begins ingesting the herbs, he regains his strength and then starts getting younger and younger. A visit to the Himalayas, where he receives additional treatment, re-doubles the effect, and Gelber becomes not only more vital and energetic, but taller and stronger as well. Soon afterwards, the quack assists him in taking on a new identity. Now known as the twenty-two-year-old Tennessean Jay Reynolds, in a short period the weekend tennis player has emerged from his chrysalis with an uncanny forehand and a devastating serve. Guided by a once-ranked African-American tennis player and coach, Dan/Jay then heads to Colombia for his first major tennis tournament. That leads him to qualifier status at Wimbledon and a chance to establish himself as the goat. For those who may be unfamiliar, this acronym has come into common parlance among sports fans: Greatest Of All Time.
The rest of Simon’s skillfully told story revolves around several different questions. The most important of these is the matter of whether an older man can make use of the wisdom that comes with age to avoid wrecking his appealing new life. Will the seductions of fame cause him to ruin the marriage in which he soon finds himself with his coach’s daughter? Will he choose to ignore the needs of his son and grandson from the life he left behind? And what will he do when he runs out of the herbs that give him his youthful power and energy? Simon moves his story along at a welcome pace. The tale mixes a measure of satire of big-time tournament tennis with a certain affection for it, which makes plain that the author genuinely loves the sport. Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, and Roger Federer are among those who make brief but necessary cameos.
I must acknowledge here that I know Simon slightly, and that his wife (the screenwriter Sheryl Longin) and he were kind hosts to me some years ago when I visited Los Angeles. Nonetheless, I don’t know Simon well enough to say if he is religious. But I found the book’s take on faith appealing. The hero begins as an agnostic, but he is given reason to see that, as what we know of the world is so much less than what it is, we might be prudent to accept the wisdom of our forebears in their practices of worship.
Many readers may already know that Simon is an unabashed conservative. What some younger readers might not know is that, back in the 1970s and ’80s, he was the author of a series of popular mystery novels featuring the detective Moses Wine. (One of these was adapted and turned into the off-beat political thriller, The Big Fix, which starred Richard Dreyfuss.) Deservedly well received, they earned multiple award nominations: one for a John Creasey Award, from the Crime Writers of Great Britain for the best first detective novel; and numerous for Edgar Awards, from the Mystery Writers of America. Moreover, they were not only touted by critics, but also commercially successful. I can still say with some confidence, though, that The GOAT is Simon’s best novel.
While decades of experience as a tennis player may not be an adequate substitute for youthful agility and quickness, practice is plainly of great advantage in novel-writing, and Simon has ably employed the knowledge he has gained over the years. Thus, The GOAT is his most economically constructed and most consistently witty and amusing tale. That it deals in its lighthearted way with the most important of existential questions makes it that much more satisfying. I don’t want to give away any more of Simon’s plot. But I can assure readers that he provides the proper number of twists and turns, and that he structures each scene with just enough detail and description—neither more nor less—to bring the scenes to life. And, as you might expect of a veteran screenwriter, he has a natural facility with dialogue.
The GOAT may not be the greatest novel of all time, but it’s a wonderfully delightful read that will disappoint few, if any.