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Review: The Golem’s Mighty Swing

The Golem’s Might Swing, by James Sturm
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2001)

The Golem’s Mighty Swing was Time magazine’s 2001 Best Graphic Novel.[1] It takes place in the 1920s, and focuses on an [almost] all-Jewish barnstorming team, the Stars of David, inspired by the real life House of David teams that played into the 1950s.

When their van breaks down, the Stars are in danger of losing several gigs, and are forced to take the offer of a Chicago promotional company who wants one of the Stars players to don a golem costume to build hype. The gimmick leads to heightened ant-semitism in one town, to the point that the lives of the Stars are very palpably threatened by the opposing team and their fans.

The novel is clearly well-research or, to say the least, based in a significant familiarity with the subject. The art is simple and a joy to look at. The subject matter, both historically and for baseball fans, is certainly worthwhile. But…

I realize that the medium might be a limitation, but I’ve read equally slim graphic novels that achieve far more in terms of thematic exploration and/or character development. Part of the story is narrated by team manager and 3B, Noah Struass, but parts of the book take outside of his awareness — not that he couldn’t have found out later, but when he does narrate, he does so in the present tense, surprised by some things as they happen, so there’s some distracting inconsistency.

In that the attention is divided, there’s really no opportunity for a moving personal struggle to develop within Strauss. Yes, he has to make a decision whether to give his team’s livelihood over to a blatant and perhaps degrading gimmick, but the decision is made without toil, and happens too early to be truly tense.

I might excuse the lack of transformation or struggle in the “main” character: not every piece of literature need be a slave to the idea of character development — not all of them even consider it — and so they can’t all be judged on those terms. (The first person narration suggests that this novel could be judged on those terms, but whatever.) After all, big issues are at stake thematically in Mighty Swing. But the treatment of the issues is also underwhelming to me. A few anti-semitic terms get thrown around early, and then all of a sudden, one especially backwards town swarms the ball field and chases the Stars of David back into their dugout, where they are barely protected by a line bigoted police officers. Ultimately, the novel doesn’t really offer any insight or a new perspective into the history of Jewish athletes’s dealing with such bigotry; it merely presents it.

The novel includes a postscript that, to me, nods to something much deeper both thematically and within Strauss’s character, but it’s too little, too late. To boot, it’s a rare combination of clumsy execution and a too-subtle theme.

The book itself is a comely enough object, and I really appreciate books-as-objects. Plus, it’s about a barnstorming baseball team! Because of those merits, I wish I could tell you that you need to read The Golem’s Mighty Swing, if you haven’t already. As it stands, I won’t tell you to not read it, because I’d be interested in discussing it. (Find me on Twitter!) In fact, I’d be interested in everyone telling me why I’m wrong.

Until then, meh.