Saturday, January 21, 2012

"The Art Of Fielding:" Chad Harbach's Hit Parade

It's very difficult to think of a novel debut that has received the sort of instant praise that came with Chad Harbach's The Art Of Fielding. That's not to say that first novels don't amaze, but normally there is the necessity for attention to build after a publication date. After its early praise and enthusiastic recommendations from my friends, I put the work on my "to-read" list. As is normally the case, I wasn't able to get to it right away, and as its fall publication turned it into one of the holiday season's best-sellers, I found myself to be a bit wary. There is good hype and bad hype, and I was slightly worried that the novel's near-unanimous praise was pushing it into a potential disappointment (I still haven't read or heard anything negative about it, but as is the case with any work, I know it has dissenting voices). Normally, I focus on my own excitement over a piece of writing, but in this case, getting numb to the constant praise seemed to make The Art Of Fielding that much more enjoyable. By going into it with a level head, I was able to let its story and surprises reveal themselves slowly. Having finished it last week, I'm still amazed at how Harbach combined contemporary elements into what feels like an older, established novel.

Henry Skrimshander is the star shortstop for the Division III Westish Harpooners baseball team, a perennial underachiever that has slowly become a championship contender. Throughout boyhood and high school, Henry's defense had served as his best asset, aided by constant practice and by a book called The Art Of Fielding, written by Aparicio Rodriguez, a former All-Star shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals. As Henry gets stronger (his hitting improves as his team does), he is heavily scouted and projected to be an early Major League draft pick. His teammates have their own unique traits and stories. Mike Schwartz, the catcher and team captain, deals with the aches and pains of being a football and baseball player,is attempting to get into law school, and serves as Henry's mentor. Owen Dunne, Henry's roommate, is openly gay and primarily rides the bench, reading books during games, yet manages to remain a vital part of the team. Adam Starblind (Harbach has a unique system of names that mirrors the offbeat names of baseball players past and present) is their number one pitcher.

Guert Affenlight is the Westish school president, a Melville scholar (hence the team name) who finds himself in a tender and rushed affair with Owen, and these personal complications are both aided and harmed by the unexpected arrival of his daughter Pella, who's fleeing her broken marriage. Pella and Mike quickly become enamored with each other, and these separate affairs become heightened when the sure-handed Henry accidentally throws a routine grounder into the dugout, striking Owen in the face and landing him in the hospital. This seeming unnatural error spirals Henry into a case of Steve Blass disease, leading to personal and existential crises for everyone involved. Relationships become strained, the team struggles to keep their momentum going despite Henry's crumbling defense, and the novel becomes a narrative of the characters' individual and collective pursuits of happiness and confrontations of open and secret problems. All throughout, Harbach manages to combine exceptional narratives of baseball and academia through the sympathetic characters.

While the team's championship run holds the plot lines together, it's far too easy (and potentially misleading) to call The Art Of Fielding a "baseball book," but Harbach's descriptions of the game's actions are superior and realistic without resorting to grandeur. Baseball is too often discussed and written in mythical qualities, but in this book, it's done naturally and realistically:

"Before the pitch he stood at ease, glove on his hip, his face round and windburned and open, delivering instructions or encouragement to his teammates with a relaxed smile. But as the ball left the pitcher's hand his face went blank. The chatter stopped midword. In one motion he yanked his navy cap with its harpoon-skewered W toward his eyes and dropped into a feline crouch, thighs parallel to the field, glove brushing the dirt. He looked low to the ground but light on his feet, more afloat than entrenched. The pitch was fouled back, but not before he had taken two full steps to his left, toward the place where he anticipated the ball to be headed. None of the other infielders had moved an inch (Harbach 68)."

This is a character-driven novel, and is strongly assured for a debut, especially since all of the characters have the potential to be rendered in cliche or stereotype. The relationship between Owen and Guert, while seemingly doomed from the start, transcends their gender and becomes a realization that their positions (school president, student, and their age difference) render anything serious to be impossible. But it's a relationship not solely based on sex, but on mutual appreciation. Guert is worried that he's having a midlife crisis, but their meetings are beautiful and show signs of a genuine compatibility.

"Part of Affenlight felt peeved at Owen for interrupting or dismissing his bliss. Because it was bliss, he felt, to be here with Owen and to read to him, even when he was reading dry-as-dust sentences from a poorly xeroxed course packet. Of all the activities two people could do together in private, Affenlight had a special fondness for reading aloud. Maybe this was part of his instinct for solitude and self-enclosure; a way to reveal himself while hiding behind someone else's words (Harbach 218-219)."

Pella is the only major female character in the novel, and again, her makeup is one that could veer on insulting, especially with the emphasis of the past few years on the lack of dynamic female characters in contemporary fiction. Pella has a strained relationship with her father, and her personal relationships are fraught with unhappiness. However, she acknowledges this outright and comes to Westish in order to forge her own path. She takes classes and works as a campus dishwasher despite her father being the school president and a previous life of comfort with her ex-husband. She's determined to be strong and to be her own person, even as her relationship with Mike hits a few serious bumps along the way. From the beginning, she and Mike seem to make an excellent match, and this description of him manages to unintentionally apply to Pella as well:

"Schwartz prided himself on his honesty. If one of his teammates was dogging it, he busted that teammate's balls, and if one of his classmates or professors made a comment that seemed specious or incomplete, he said so. Not because he knew more than they did but because the clash of imperfect ideas was the only way for anyone, including himself, to learn and improve. That was the lesson of the Greeks (Harbach 102)."

Henry's descent into realizing a potential world without baseball manages to tie in nicely to the literary/academic world of Westish. Athletes, like humanities majors, are often told to have backup plans in case their ambitions don't work out in "the real world." With Henry, baseball is like literature for some people: he simply cannot imagine functioning without it, and it leads him into his own existential gloom, literally roaming around trying to make sense of an alternate reality. Again, much like baseball is often too romanticized (and I say that as a serious baseball fan myself), there is often a tendency to over-emphasize baseball's relationship to literature. However, this is where Harbach succeeds. His writing sometimes winks to this, but is predominantly grounded. Much like the above passage linking Mike and Pella, some passages manage to reflect multiple themes. This one deftly combines the ideals of baseball and writing without being obvious:

"Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn't plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. you had to send your words out where they weren't yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words (Harbach 420)."

Chad Harbach is the co-founder and editor of the excellent literary and political journal n+1, and had been working on The Art Of Fielding for over ten years, and the amazement over the novel stems from both its contents and its completeness, a rarity for a first-time novelist. It was initially praised by Jonathan Franzen, and a few months back, a humorous web article stated that people who loved The Art Of Fielding were readers who were just waiting for the next Franzen novel. However, I don't see any immediate similarities between the two. Franzen tends to make his characters unsympathetic at first, until their situations, histories, and developments redeem them. Harbach's characters are all immediately likable, even with their faults. Franzen works in a style that is immediately contemporary and fits well into current conditions; with the exception of the occasional mention of an iPhone or Scott Boras, there are stretches of The Art Of Fielding that feel as if they could be set in any era. With that in mind, it's stunning how the novel works as a contemporary study as well as an unabashed homage to classic literature (however, I personally don't buy the connection between the title and Henry Fielding, of which much has been made in more than a few reviews). That's not to say that the novel is without faults. Harbach manages to write some hilarious dialogue and scenes, but occasionally falls flat (an early passage hints at characters having sex, when in reality they're weightlifting), and I found the ending to be slightly implausible, even if its emphasis is on the metaphor (sorry to be vague, but even now, a revelation would be a major spoiler). However, these missteps are minor. Harbach has written a work that contains almost everything one could want in a novel, and hits the rare mark of being both intellectual and vastly entertaining, and, returning to Franzen, represents one of my favorite sentences: "You call it art, I call it entertainment, we both turn the pages."

Work Cited:
Harbach, Chad. The Art Of Fielding. Copyright 2011 by Chad Harbach.


Terrance said...

So far, I can say that I am not really reminded of Franzen. Having never read any Fielding, I cannot comment on those similarities. However, I feel that Harbach's writing very much class to mind a mix of John Irving and Michael Chabon. At least, that's my impression. I love the book so far.

James Yates said...

Ah, I still haven't read anything by John Irving. My good friend (also named Jamie) swears by him. Any recommendations for a starter novel of his?

Michael Chabon never crossed my mind during the reading, but I see where you're coming from. I remember an excellent essay from a year or so back imploring male novelists to stop writing about comic books and baseball. I agree with that, but I'm still glad that Harbach wrote this novel.

Terrance said...

It's always tough making a recommendation of an entry novel. Do you start with the best and then have the reader go through a slow decline? Do you start with a decent one and let them find the best one later? Anyway, I absolutely love "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

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