How to Succeed in Tennis Without Really Trying
If you read Roger Simon’s latest novel, "The Goat," avoid reading it on an airplane. I burst out laughing enough to alarm everyone else in the cabin. Simon has cooked up a frolicking, comic fantasy with lots to say.
"The Goat," otherwise known as “the greatest of all time,” sends you down a rabbit hole where a seventy-something writer and tennis hobbyist suffers a debilitating tennis injury and botched surgery. Instead of finding a cure for his pain in modern Western medicine, Dan Gelber stumbles into the storefront of a mysterious Eastern herbalist named Gombo in a strip mall in the San Fernando Valley.
Gombo gives Gelber relief through a magic tea made from herbs from his Himalayan homeland. The mysterious Gombo has the power to do amazing things, and to tease human lives into twisted and preposterous circumstances. Not only does he cure the pain, he promises to turn back the clock to fix the aging Gelber. But Gelber must choose to drink the tea. “What’s in it?” Gelber wonders.
“Turmeric, resveratrol, vitamin B-12, fish oil,” says Gombo.
“I get that on Amazon.”
“Ha-ha. Just joking. Are secret ingredients from shaman high in Himalaya. Rhodiola only part, cannot tell you more.”
Gombo provides Gelber the chance to relive life however he wants. After plenty of tea, Gelber chooses the easy path around suffering, opting for a dream life he never lived. Gelber jettisons his old self and morphs into 20 year old “Jay Reynolds,” a tennis player with fantastic Gombo-driven skills destined to become the Greatest of All Time—the Goat.
With Gombo’s tea and other eastern herbs, Gelber de-ages and transforms into an unbeatable, six-foot-three hurricane that dispatches all the great players on the tennis circuit—Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, one after another.
Here Simon mixes first-rate comedy with profound questions about suffering, sin, choice and vanity.
First the comedy.
Simon’s many and varied screenplays demonstrate a skill that ranges from comic romance in "Enemies: A Love Story" to the gritty immigrant’s tale, "A Better Life"—both Oscar nominated films. "The Goat" has all the whimsy and hilarity of set-piece physical comedy that would suit the screen.
Let’s hope, because "The Goat" is full of zany tension.
There is the suspicious Dr. Withers of the World Anti-Doping Agency who is hot on the Goat’s trail, playing a role similar to Gladys Kravitz in "Bewitched," peering in windows trying to figure out what’s really going on. Gombo seems to have the ability to bend the laws of nature and make balls fault that were fair, and fair that were fault. It’s Jeannie tormenting Master just for kicks. There’s 20-year-old Jay Reynolds, on a date in Paris with the cultural and historical knowledge of a 70-year-old, speaking in French to waiters, thinking of Édith Piaf, and discussing Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast," comically trying not to blow it with a date who has never heard of any of them.
The Goat lives in a luxurious secret world of his own choosing, with Gombo’s help. The Goat is a funny superstar, but he is also a conman to the core. Simon takes us along for the ride; the hidden stash of herbs in the Goat’s pocket during the finals of the French Open at Stade Roland-Garros; the encounters with the Goat’s own son, an agent for Nike trying to land a deal with the Goat; and in the end, the Goat is little more than a junkie driving to his dealer Gombo for more of the youth sustaining herb.
Simon’s Goat might be 20 and on top of the world, but the world around him might not be on top anymore.
Can the young know what is being lost if they do not experience the loss?
Los Angeles? “Garbage was strewn everywhere,” Simon observes. “It was the way he would have imagined Calcutta, people in the brightest colors but living in abject poverty. But maybe that was unfair to Calcutta. He had never been there. This was sadder because it wasn’t the Third World. This was America. Los Angeles, the city of his dreams when he was young, the golden destination enshrined in song by the Mommas and the Papas, had gone to [crap].”
California, that idyllic destination of 1950’s and 60’s Middletown dreams now had enormous tent cities inhabited by the homeless “transgendered, garishly made up, their necks swathed in purple or pink scarves.”
What bothered the seventy-year-old Dan Gelber about Paris didn’t seem to bother the Goat. “He was more or less oblivious to the passing nightmare of the Paris suburbs, a sight that so disturbed him in his previous life, the endless squalid government housing with its Arabic graffiti interrupted by the recognizable roman letters NTMJ, nique ta mère juif, [explicative] your mother Jew, that signaled the decline of a once grand civilization.”
Who will preserve civilization if only the old appreciate what civilization means? The Goat enjoyed every material wish, from a Mercedes-Maybach and a helipad to homes in the Virgin Islands and Cortina—but he couldn’t reveal himself to his own son or grandson.
Simon’s frolic is fun for sure, and full of laughs, but something sinister is at work from the first moment the mysterious Gombo arrives all smiles and wisecracks. The easy way isn’t usually so easy.
Through all the comedy and hilarity, Simon has something to say. Call it wisdom, call it the complexity of experience. Call it a backwards glance at the self-absorbed cultural transformation that occurred in the United States in the sixties and seventies. Whatever it is, "The Goat" lets you live the dream and laugh along the way, and still laugh when you reach that dark inevitable place that avarice, lies, deception and greed take you, even if Simon has the mercy to set you down gently in a soft warm place.
J. Christian Adams is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Injustice" (Regnery) and an election attorney.