Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

I wanted to love this book. Its own story, detailed in an extensive Vanity Fair long-form article (now available as an ebook) is compelling enough: Harbach spent years working and honing the story, the language, his own life apparently on hold as he dedicated himself to the novel. It's hard not to imagine Harbach as Henry Skrimshander, the preternatually gifted shortstop, whose only wish is to work toward perfection:

All he'd ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it liek that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You rant the stadium a little faster.  You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little.  You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts--whatever you didn't need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.

Can't you see Harbach developing this routine for his writing? Every day a little more of the book is written, every day he polishes the language, sharpens the character, simplifies the plot, all the work pointing to this, the novel that tries to speak to what it takes to live and love, to become who you are.

It comes very very close. Hell, it might even be the wise, luminous, great-hearted novel its supporters claim it is--it is certainly a very very good one. Maybe I am just too old to be pierced by this story of college aged men (mostly) finding their way. Maybe my own life has a little too much of its own turmoil, and so I'm a little too calloused to be appropriately vulnerable to this book's charms. It has enough humanity that I am more than a little ashamed of my inability to fall entirely into its spell--and maybe that's enough to prove its worth.

To say that this book is about baseball is misleading. It's like saying that pizza is "about" oregano--baseball gives this book its seasoning, its distinctive taste, but its not "about" baseball the way that The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is. Instead, baseball is the organizing principle--maybe even the excuse--for the book.

The baseball plot shapes itself around Henry Skrimshander, a scrawny kid from South Dakota with no visible future beyond high school. He's a gifted shortstop, and he gets spotted by Mike Schwartz, a freshman baseball player from the fictional Westish College in Wisconsin. Mike convinces his coach that the team needs this kid, and the story is in motion. Henry lands at Westish and meets the rest of the characters. His roommate: "Owen Dunne. I'll be your gay mulatto roommate." Owen also plays baseball, in an elegant and refined way that earned him the nickname "Buddha." Unflappable, calm, Owen ends up having an affair with the flappable Guert Affenlight, president of Westish College. Affenlight's daughter Pella also arrives on campus, fleeing an ill-advised marriage to an older architect in San Francisco--she met him when he came to lecture at her college? Prep school? At any rate, hers is the cautionary tale of faculty-student romance that sets itself against the Affenlight-Owen affair. And while the story seems to take place over the three years of Henry's college career, there is little sense of passing time. Sure, Henry arrives as a new freshman, and has to orient himself around a new life, but the book itself mostly seems to take place with the kind of timelessness of a baseball game.

Unlike many sports, baseball is not ruled by the clock. The game is determined by incident--have there been three outs? Have there been nine innings? Until those things happen, the game isn't over. You run through the batting order as many times as it takes until all the necessary events have occurred.

This book is also kind of like that. We get glimpses in turn of the main characters; alone, in pairs, or grouped. We see relationships form, we see lives change shape, we get death, we get a championship game, and they all seem to take place in a sort of never-ending now. Sure, Mike Schwartz also plays football, but we never actually see a football season. Presumably all these kids take classes, have finals, write papers, but mostly they seem to float around suspended in a medium of gentle bookishness, a sort of environmental erudition that doesn't require actual schoolwork. The days are mostly the same--the boys train, or they play a game, games that differ from each other mostly by being labeled either "home" or "away." There is an ethereal sameness to the book, just like a strike is different from a ball only in details, not usually in a fundamental way.

The largest incident of the book is the wild throw that launches Henry Skrimshander into a spiral of doubt. Usually a perfect player, the Platonic ideal of a shortstop, Henry knows where the ball is going to go before it even hits the bat. He is racking up an impressive collegiate record, tying the longest error-free streak of his personal idol, Aparicio Rodriguez, baseball Hall of Famer and author of the eponymous "Art of Fielding." (This was the one book Henry brought with him to college, and apparently the only book he read the entire three years.) After tying that record, however, Henry throws a ball that impossibly, inexplicably, fails to fly to its target and instead sails into his team dugout, hitting Owen in the face and knocking him out cold. This is what precipitates a number of changes for everybody.

Henry, predictably, begins to second-guess himself with every throw, and the situation simply worsens until he walks off the field mid-game and withdraws from life entirely, refusing to even to eat. Guert Affenlight visits Owen in the hospital, slowly coming alive to his attraction to another man, but having to face professional and personal destruction when the affair is reported. Schwartzy faces his own black pit of despair, having failed to get into any one of the six top-tier law schools where he applied--he tried to launch his post-sports career without a safety net, and now he has nowhere to land. Pella Affenlight (who doesn't actually seem to be four years older than everybody else) has to confront the emptiness of her own life, breaking down her self-conception and rebuilding it from the bottom up--auditing classes and washing dishes in the school cafeteria.

The prose is confident, the book encompasses a lot of different character arcs, but it never really conveys the emotional peaks and valleys. Guert Affenlight is confronted by two members of the college administration and board of trustees--his affair with a student will not be made public if he resigns effective the end of the school year, a matter of days (weeks?) away. Instead, he manages to smoke himself to death that evening, with a kind of beatific calmness that defies belief. Maybe it's supposed to be metaphorical; maybe Harbach doesn't yet have the tools to confront the situation he's set for himself. Either way, Guert's death is symptomatic of the kind of smoothing over of emotional extremes I felt. Discovering previously unsuspected homoeroticism in your sixties? Turns out its not unsettling, forcing Guert to reconstruct his self-conception--instead it's kind of like being anesthetized or stoned. The relationship consists more of cuddling on a sofa and reading poetry to each other--with the occasional (and tastefully rendered off-screen) hand- and blow-jobs.  There's no ickiness--no need to handle lubricants or condoms, no worries about transmitting fatal diseases, no heart plummeting fear when the affair is discovered. It's all single-malt scotch in clubby leather chairs and 19th century literature.

Owen is the single "exotic" and boy is he. He floats through life well shaped, fastidiously groomed, academically flawless, infinitely wise and understanding. His gayness never discomforts anyone, his racial identity never provoking anyone in the provincial small town or the college. None of the jocks ever mocks him, there is never the slightest hint of racism or homophobia, not even when the administration confronts Affenlight with the affair--it's more about the faculty-student aspect than any of the uglier issues that would probably have been at least raised.

Pella Affenlight is a good try, and I'm glad Harbach took on trying to articulate a female experience. And Harbach did make her more than an adoring fan, or a trophy girlfriend. But her story never really coalesces either. She made a bad marriage, and her arrival at Westish looks like an arc of self-discovery. In theory, she breaks herself down to her components in order to build herself back up--the way Schwartzy breaks down Henry's batting in order to make him a better hitter. But what really happens is that Pella leaves her undermining husband and returns to her father--with whom she rather predictably regresses into sullen adolescence. She quickly becomes Schwartzy's girlfriend, but also uses her magical vagina to rescue Henry. Even her job at the cafeteria is all about gaining approval from the male chef. Harbach makes some gestures toward her developing relationships with some females--she lives for a few months in a house with two other girls--although that situation is completely overshadowed by the fact that Henry has attached himself to her and lives like a cockroach in her room. There is the promise of coursework to be taken with a female professor Pella admires--but for the most part, her world is entirely defined and dominated by men. The situation could be worse, of course, but it should be better than it is. I'm not sure this book passes the "Bechdel Test"--does this book have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? Pella does have a conversation with her father's housekeeper (who does have a name, but I can't recall it right now), but they talk about Guert, so no. And as far as I can recall, that's the only conversation two women have at all.

And then there is Schwartzy. Again--preternatually gifted, prematurely grizzled, this is not a college student , unless Westish has an affirmative action program for AARP admissions. Nominally Jewish, Mike Schwartz is the adult of the book, the one who gets Henry into Westish, who develops Henry's training program, the guy who seems to run the baseball program starting in his sophomore year. If this book owes anything to Bull Durham it is Schwartz: he is the Crash Davis of the book. I can accept his physical breakdown--playing football and baseball has ruined his knees, he's already a large man, he's pushed himself past his own physical capability. But where did he learn enough physiology, biology, kinesthesiology to take on the entire rebuilding of Henry's batting? And why does anybody let him? Where are the coaches? This made me wonder why nobody looked at a physical cause for Henry's inability to throw. After all, they took a scrawny kid of 18, and entirely rebuilt his body--he was constantly eating supplements to put on pounds, he was running with weights, he was doing extreme strength training, running until he puked, Schwartzy even took apart his entire swing and rebuilt that through training. By his junior year, Henry was literally in a different body than he started with. No wonder it didn't work the way he was used to.

But that's not what makes a novel--it has to be a spiritual/emotional/mental/existential crisis. Sure--and of course it would be when it happened. It just seems like the book overlooked a glaringly obvious issue that is emblematic of the book's general failure to really address the physical reality of the lives it chronicles.

Not a bad book by any means, and definitely worth reading. I just wanted to fall in love with it, and I couldn't.

By the way--the cover of the book consciously mimics the "font" of a Rawlings baseball--check it out:


rkelley04 said...

totally agree with all accounts. Thanks for summarizing b.c I had to quit it! - rkelley04


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