October 30, 2011

Review: The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art of Fielding, has received an amazing amount of buzz and praise, both for the quality of the writing and for the ten-year path the manuscript took to publication*. Baseball America called Harbach the literary equivalent of Stephen Strasburg.

* If you are interested, Keith Gessen explores the world of book publishing in the October issue of Vanity Fair. Gessen's article uses Harbach's experience as a springboard (the two men are co-founders and co-editors of n+1). An expanded version of the article (19,000 words or so) is available as a $2 e-book: "How a Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding".

From Gregory Cowles's glowing review in the New York Times (which includes plenty of plot details (aka information that does not belong in a book review because it can ruin your reading experience):
The novel centers on the Westish College Harpooners, a Division III team from the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan that sees its fortunes rise and then rise some more with the arrival of a nearly magical young shortstop named Henry Skrimshander. Henry is an infield savant, scrawny but supremely gifted, and by his junior year he's chasing records and being scouted by the majors as a top draft prospect. Then, in the baseball equivalent of a werewolf movie, it all goes terribly wrong ...

[I]t feels exactly right that Henry's crisis is precipitated by over­analysis - he's paralyzed by thought, by an inability to simply act (or react). This is credible from a sports point of view, and fraught with significance from a literary one. Thinking, after all, is a writer's primary weapon, but every writer knows it's double-­edged; live too much in your head and you don't live enough in the world. This is Hamlet's quandary, and, as one character unsurprisingly notes, also Prufrock's: "Do I dare, and do I dare?" Harbach's achievement is to transfer the thinking man's paralysis to the field of play, where every hesitation is amplified and every error judged by an exacting, bloodthirsty audience.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Art of Fielding (I received a copy from the publisher, Hachette Book Group). Harbach, a Brewers fan, treats baseball as a form of art, and he is as deft at writing about the game as Skrimshander is at playing shortstop. And while there is plenty of baseball in the novel, Harbach is more concerned with his characters*' struggles with figuring out who they are (or who they want to be) and the attendant hard work, and the setbacks and dead ends along the way. Or, as The Atlantic's Reeves Wiedeman puts it:
What do you do when the thing you're best at, the one thing you truly love, suddenly causes you the most pain?
* Besides Skrimshander, the other main characters are: Mike Schwartz, Westin's catcher and the guy who discovers/recruits Henry; Owen Dunne, Henry's dorm mate (and teammate); Guert Affenlight, the college's president; and his daughter, Pella Affenlight.
While wondering why great sports novels are so rare, Wiedeman quotes from David Foster Wallace's essay (from Consider the Lobster) about his (DFW's) disappointment at Tracy Austin's memoir, and the realization that athletes often are unable to give us any real insight into what they do.

The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.
Being a top athlete is such a physical, instinctual act, that it is one that its actors struggle to consider, and, indeed, deliberate on only at their own peril.
It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it - and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.
The value of the sports novel, then, is to explain not only to fans, but also to athletes themselves, just what the heck is going on inside their heads. Athleticism is a level of human performance so misunderstood by those who partake in it, that it begs for our best fictionalists to explore.
Salon's Mike Doherty writes that
Harbach exposes an issue that's integral both to the sport and to American democracy: the tension between the individual and the collective, where the pursuit of personal happiness is pitted against the good of the whole. ...

Baseball heroes uphold the standards set out for great men by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay "Self-Reliance" - they think for themselves and value "the independence of solitude" but accept "the society of [their] contemporaries" and "the connection of events," and come into their own as "guides, redeemers and benefactors." Such prose may seem grandiose in context, but Harbach's collegiate characters are given to quoting Emerson and other American Renaissance authors, who wrote at a time when baseball was becoming "the national pastime." Westish's baseball players are forced to examine how their roles on the team affect their trajectories in life.
Henry Skrimshander uses the same baseball glove he received on his ninth birthday: "The glove seemed huge back then; now it fit him snugly, barely bigger than his left hand. He liked it that way; it helped him feel the ball."

He is also rarely without his well-worn copy of Aparicio Rodriguez's The Art of Fielding, a collection of 233 aphorisms - bits of wisdom about baseball and life tinged with eastern philosophy. From the novel:
By this point in his life, reading Aparicio no longer really qualified as reading, because he had the book more or less memorized. He could flip to a chapter, any chapter, and the shapes of the short, numbered paragraphs were enough to trigger his memory.

26. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.

59. To field a groundball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.

Aparicio played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals for eighteen seasons. He retired the year Henry turned ten. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived. ...

There were, admittedly, many sentences and statements in The Art that Henry did not yet understand. The opaque parts of The Art, though, had always been his favorites, even more than the detailed and extremely helpful descriptions of, say, how to keep a runner close to second base (flirtation, Aparicio called it) or what sort of cleats to wear on wet grass. The opaque parts, frustrating as they could be, gave Henry something to aspire to. Someday, he dreamed, he would be enough of a ballplayer to crack them open and suck out their hidden wisdom.
Here are a few quotes from interviews Harbach has done in the few months since the book's publication:
I think the book is about a kind of crisis moment where what the characters have always done and have always relied on turns out not to be enough at these critical moments. ... [I]f you're not constantly transforming yourself for real, at a certain point you get stuck and reliant on a way of thinking about things you do that's not working anymore.

For Henry the diamond is safety and refuge - he knows what will be demanded of him out there, and he knows that he can provide it. The game is complex, of course, but it holds out the hope of being perfectly knowable. Life is much scarier, its demands much more shifty and unknowable. I guess what happens to Henry is that he's spent his entire career striving to make life as simple as baseball. It works for a while, but it's a doomed project, and suddenly baseball becomes as complex as life.

The Art of Fielding is in large part a book about the varieties of male friendship, from the antagonistic and the competitive to the deeply affectionate and the frankly sexual, and so Moby-Dick, taking place as it does in a very intense world of very intense men, seemed like the ideal analogue. A baseball team is a lot like a whaling ship: in each case, a group of men who might otherwise have little in common spend an inordinate amount of time in close and not-so-comfortable quarters, excluding the world, in pursuit of a common goal.

For Henry, I think the question is more: is there life outside of baseball? Until now, he's been so "regular and orderly" in his life, as Flaubert recommended, and that dull regularity has made him a great athlete but has stunted him in other ways. There's a tension between the demands of life and the demands of art; that's what he's trying to resolve. Can he do the strange, surprising, scary things required to become a real human being with a real inner life, and still devote himself to his craft?
That all sounds very exciting to me as a reader, but Harbach doesn't go into it as deeply as I would have liked.
There are apparently scores of literary references (to Melville and others) throughout the book, but I am not savvy enough to catch them. However, Melville does use the noun "skrimshander" in Chapter 57 of Moby-Dick:
Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies' busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure. Some of them have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended for the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their jack-knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner's fancy.
The last name of Westish's Adam Starblind seems similar to the Pequod's Starbuck. And Owen Dunne recalls Owen Chase, the first mate on the Essex that set sail on a sperm whale-hunting expedition in August 1819. In November 1820, a whale rammed the ship and it sank. Chase alone survived to tell the tale, which fascinated Melville. (Dunne is also possibly linked to John Irving's Owen Meany.)
Praise for The Art of Fielding has not been universal. Robert Sternberg (Globe and Mail) states that
the cultured and literary baseball fan eager to be taken deep into the unknown world of Division III college baseball will be disappointed ... The book is too unfocused, heavily plotted and weighted down by the author's many contrivances, idiosyncrasies, indulgences and wearisome, not to mention unnecessarily topical, preoccupations. ...

In Moby-Dick, Melville often digresses from his simple plot to expound eloquently on various facets of the commercial whaling industry. Harbach becomes so wrapped up in the twists and turns of his elaborate plot, and the frequently inane repartee of his slippery characters, that he rarely allows himself such digressions, so by the book's end his subject, baseball, seems incidental.
I disagree with Sternberg's complaints, generally. He's not entirely wrong, but I do not pick up a book expecting to love every paragraph; I know I will likely encounter sections that I might describe as unnecessary or contrived or boring. That was rarely the case with The Art of Fielding, thankfully. However, I do agree that baseball ultimately ends up playing second fiddle to the various off-field dramas of the main characters. (Which doesn't necessarily sink the book. I simply wanted more baseball!)

Andrew Ivers labelled it a "professional failure" and Biblioklept (which quit reading after 100 pages) said it was
run-of-the-mill literary fiction ... The book is not entirely terrible. It just isn't very good, certainly not good enough to warrant the excessive praise that's been heaped upon it. Cardboard characters, cliché after cliché (plot, character, prose), and plenty of bad writing.
(Many reader reviews, good and bad and effusive, can be found at Good Reads.)
Vanity Fair published a lengthy excerpt entitled "Phumber 405" (Chapter 2 of the novel). The book begins between games at a "no-name tournament" in the heat of August with Mike Schwartz watching as Henry takes infield practice after his South Dakota team has been eliminated.
Schwartz didn't notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he noticed only what everyone else did - that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry's every move. ...

Now when the kid reached the worked-over dust that marked the shortstop's spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn't have had. He'd played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.

Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.

The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman's glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.

The coach hit balls harder and farther afield - up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn't seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.

After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid's thoughts were - whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look - Schwartz couldn't say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine's poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.

Then the coach's bucket was empty and the first baseman's bucket full, and all three men left the field without a word. Schwartz felt bereft. He wanted the performance to continue. He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion. He looked around to see who else had been watching - wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness - but nobody was paying any attention. The few fans who hadn't gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cell-phone screens. The kid's loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks. Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He'd figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he'd seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn't let it walk away.

1 comment:

allan said...

Off to New York.
Back on Thursday.