Well, call me derivative or simply lazy, but this novel really reminded me of "Under the Frog" by Tibor Fischer which I read a few months ago.
Both books pretend to revolve around the exotic wonders of a sport half-unknown to the British audience (basketball there, ping-pong here) and are set in the 1950s and both eventually take a long detour somewhere else.
Whereas Fischer aimed a bit too high with his sketch of Hungary and the 1958 Revolution, Jacobson decided to cope with a more familiar territory: Manchester, well actually the mostly Jewish neighbourhood of Manchester he grew up in. Which is nothing new as he did the same in the only other book by him I read so far, "Kalooki Nights".
And no surprises that the term "kalooki" pops up in "The Mighty Walzer" too, alongside with a whole lot of semi-yiddish terms washed in the Mancunian slang. Beware you readers of Isaac B. Singer, Abraham Yehoshua, Bernard Malamud and Jonathan Safran Foer because what you learned about some yiddish expressions such as "meshuggah", "schlomo", "shtetl", "bar-mitzvah" or "goy" won't save you here.
The truth is that Jacobson decided to add some spice to his story with the Jewish background of the sexual initiation and disillusion of life of his Oliver Walzer with an avalanche of tongue-twisting words that are not always self-explanatory because of the context they're put in.
- Have I written "sexual initiation"?
- But hang on a moment: according to the Sunday Telegraph this is "the first great novel about ping-pong" and "one of the greatest sporting novels ever", is that untrue?
- Kind of, I'm afraid.
Let's rather say that Jacobson wrote his own "Portnoy's Lament", leaving the ping-pong bat idle for most of this novel and not always finding a decent substitute for it.
All that said, there are some good and a few very good things in "The Mighty Walzer". First of all, I should mention the brilliant part with Walzer attending Cambridge University. Well, this is very well written stuff: witty and merciless with that decadent Oxbridge life which I peeped and eavesdropped at (clearly out of my envy for not having studied there in my heydays). For a few pages Jacobson forgets his prolixity and yiddish-Mancunian patois becoming the satirist he doesn't manage to be in the rest of the book.
Alas! This sort of literary miracle happens only for a few pages.
But it's good to know that Jacobson could make it if he only wanted to.
"The Mighty Walzer" doesn't have that much to do with ping-pong and it's deinitely not a "sporting novel", but Howard Jacobson is able to get at least those ten points which make this novel worth a match.
It's all about spin, lads.