Prophets with Honor

HAL PIPER

October 02, 1993|By HAL PIPER

Prophets do not make predictions. Economists (GNP to rise 2.3 percent!) and charlatans (Jackie to have Elvis' baby!) make predictions. What prophets do is more interesting. They notice things before the rest of us do. They hold up a mirror to us, exaggerating a little for effect. And a few years later, we dullards smite our brows and say, ''You know, that's just the way it is.''

Three books I read long ago come back to me as prophetic. I haven't looked again at any of them, so I may not remember details accurately, but the authors saw the way things are long before I did.

Ayn Rand's ''Atlas Shrugged'' quite consciously aspired to be prophetic. It describes a gridlock society of bureaucrats and parasites only too recognizable in the subsequent context of savings-and-loan boodlers, of Congressmen trading favors for campaign contributions, of the prating hypocrite Ross Perot, who founded his fortune on sweetheart deals from the government trough.

In Rand's fable, the hero-entrepreneurs drop out of society and create their own world in a hidden mountain fastness. Unfortunately, there is no room there for Eddie Willers, a loyal dogsbody to one of the paragons. He ends up abandoned to thirst and exposure on an Arizona railroad track. Too bad: Eddie is a decent guy, but no hero. Rand's every-man-for-himself philosophy is no more attractive to me now than 30 years ago. But her depiction of a nation of sycophants and mountebanks only becomes more vivid.

Altogether different is Robert Coover's ''Universal Baseball Association.'' An old man, Henry J. Waugh, whiles away lonely hours playing a baseball game he has made up. Three dice spell every ball and strike, every sacrifice bunt and home run. Henry has created a six-team league, knows the biography of each imaginary player and keeps full sets of statistics as the dice roll and whole seasons pass.

One day, against all odds, the dice roll out a fatal beanball which fells Henry's favorite player, the young golden boy Damon Rutherford. Henry's world spins out of control. The players seem to rebel against the game. Someone comes into the league, bats over .400 as a rookie and under .150 the next year and is gone. The dice roll and roll, seasons race past, nothing makes sense.

This book fascinated me because as a kid I, too, invented an imaginary baseball universe, which continued to waste too much of my time even after I achieved nominal majority. My game, too, PTC relied on three dice to tell every pitch and pop-up and injury. I, too, played games with a six-team league and kept statistics on each player over several seasons. Luckily, it never occurred to me to program a fatal beanball into my game, and so unlike Henry I kept my sanity. (I think.)

Coover is a serious writer, not a baseball fabulist. I suppose the beanball death of Damon Rutherford parallelled the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Henry J. Waugh's madness mirrored the nation's madness in the late '60s, when the book was written. The prophecy, though, at least for me, is Coover's prescient rendering of what baseball has turned into, a mad progression of players jumping from team to team, last year's star ousted by this year's salary scale, this year's champions becoming next year's tail-enders, teams made up more or less from scratch, lacking continuity. When Cal Ripken goes, I will probably have to stop loving baseball.

The third book is ''China Gate,'' by William Arnold, who is my wife's cousin, which is why I read the book. Bill is a movie critic in Seattle, and the novel seems designed for conversion to a screenplay, filled with sure-fire movie scenes such as the hero's instruction in ancient Chinese arts of love-making.

What the book is about, though, is the reconquest of Communist China. The author was an Army brat who lived some years in Taiwan, where most of the story is set.

A young boy flees China with his family in the 1949 Communist revolution. His father makes the boy swear to recapture the family fortunes. The boy assumes that entails the overthrow of the Communist usurpers. He intrigues futilely for a while, but loses interest and becomes a businessman. And finally it dawns on him, as his interests take him onto the Chinese mainland, that this is how his father's vow will be honored -- the Communists will sell out to capitalism.

When I read the book nearly 10 years ago, it sounded too pat. I suppose I expected communism to collapse in China as it has in Russia, tumultuously. But the sellout to capitalism is exactly what is happening in China today. My wife's Cousin Bill, the prophet, knew it long ago.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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