I really liked the first 300 pages of Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art of Fielding. As I was reading that 3/5 of the book, I probably would have told you that I loved it. But a funny thing happened between that point and turning the final page. The novel drifted, and tried to do things it hadn't before, and ultimately even diluted its own strengths a bit.
Harbach's players are all deserving of praise. They're authentic, human, unique yet relatable - his biggest misstep in their creation is probably their names (another instance where a strong editor maybe could have said, you know, this is distracting). The plot & themes are fairly standard liberal arts college/transitioning to adulthood stuff. The authorial voice is entertaining enough and the various avenues the characters use to avoid or delay their maturation are grounds for meaningful insight, enough that the somewhat cliche' elements are just the field on which Harbach's particular game is played.
The third act drag can mostly be attributed to one thing: in ordering this book, I was anxious about it being a "baseball book". I love baseball and have enjoyed a few fictional journeys into the sport, but generally the game is adequately dramatic and attempts to tell "important" stories in its world fall easily into melodrama. For most of The Art of Fielding, Harbach deftly avoids those traps and temptations. And then, for long stretches of the second half of the novel, it becomes the prose equivalent of underdog sports movies like "Hoosiers". Unfortunately, this is not only distracting, but it's time that could have been spent on resolving and exploring the impact of the interpersonal conflicts that were so well developed in the beginning and middle of the book.
Throughout the novel, there are chapters and characters - fat - that I would have trimmed to make The Art of Fielding a tighter and, to my mind, better reading experience. But most of my complaints are about those last two hundred pages, and took this from being a review about a book I loved, to one about an okay book from a talented writer.
on November 1, 2011
First thing I'll admit: I purchased this not so much because I was hankering to read a baseball-themed bromance about self-discovery in the dregs of a protein shake, but more because the dollar figure of writer Chad Harbach's advance was leaked to the press and legions of curious had to know if the writing warranted that giant $650,000 figure. As if any of us know what "warranted" looks like in this case, as if we had anything to compare that against. I just knew that was a lot of money, and if a first time novelist could command that dollar figure (in this era of declining advances and tightened publishing company purse strings) , I needed to find out what he was doing right.
I finished it in 3 sittings. Worth mentioning, because I slog through most books in a single evening so there's no petty internal struggle over "WHY" I'm picking the book back up and whether I'm GENUINELY compelled to turn the next page or whether I'm simply reading out of some rote sense of duty to complete the project I've begun.
With this book, that internal struggle was strong each time I hefted the book up onto my lap. Mr Wonderful would ask me, "Is it any good?" and I would say, "I'll wait until I'm done to answer that. I don't know yet." Which was my opinion up until the final pages. "I don't know yet." I was trying to separate my envy over the publicity and the giant advance check from my enjoyment of The Novel in its own right and finding that separation very difficult.
And, as many reviews I read prior to dead lifting the novel warned, this was not a plot-driven baseball story, this was a character-driven baseball story. And it's not a baseball story at all, not really, because there's not really all that much baseball actually played out on the pages. It's just that the characters do their unfolding in relative proximity to a baseball field, for the most part.
So, I'll quote the book jacket to give us our synopsis:
"At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big-league stardom. But when a routine throw goes distatrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.
Henry's right against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affai. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process, they forge new bonds and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment -- to oneself and to others."
Okay -- my official decision on whether or not the book "was any good."
Yes -- but.
Yes, The Novel was good in that the sentences were finely crafted, the prose obviously labored over with an eye and an ear to fluidity and clarity and philosophical repose -- but --- we had some "hollow character" issues. For instance: if we're expected to care whether the purported "protagonist" Henry lives or dies, Harbach needed to imbue him with a certain whiff of humanity or some menial degree of warmth or depth that was simply NOT THERE. Henry was, essentially, no more than the mitt into and out of which a baseball flies. SO, when we're expected to CARE about the person attached to the mitt: we don't. Which poses something of a problem when so many pages are dedicated to his mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical decline. Frankly, there's a scene where he wanders out into the lake to swim in a (naturally) weighted vest. It's a "workout," apparently -- I ended up hoping it was a suicide attempt. The character -- not so much a protagonist as a catalyst or a fulcrum or a prop -- was insufferably wooden.
Yes, The Novel was good in the LITERARY sense; Harbach wielded the classic literary references (Melville, Chekhov, you name it) like I wield a knife around frosting. With much slathering. Which, sure, serves to remind us that The Man behind The Novel is well-educated, well-read, and well-equipped to remind us of both -- but -- the trade-off was authenticity. Missing from between the lines of literary reference upon literary reference was any sense that these were really, actually, young 20-somethings doing the thinking, the speaking, the behaving. If we'd been told that these characters were 33 or 43 instead of 23, perhaps some of the crisis of identity they experience while strung-out on Schlitz (yes, Schlitz) and Vicodin might have felt more believable.
And -- yes, I'm going to go here -- there was this small matter of misogyny. Okay, okay, that's a strong term. Perhaps it was less a malicious intent to make women look useless and more of a uselessness for women in general that bleeds through. First, I have no illusions that this is a book about men. Written by a man, for men, starring men. There's nary a female that crosses the page (save for the token "love triangle girl") but -- when they do make an appearance, the only currency with which Harbach arms them is a sort of clumsy sexuality that plays out almost like caricature. Pella, the "Girl" in The Novel, manages to market herself to intellectually and spiritually confused man-boys as though the only language all college kids speak fluently involves condoms.
Finally (and I know this will sound terribly nit-picky), there was a certain quaint, classical, almost old-fashioned tic to the way Harbach writes that evoked, culturally, anyway, a mid-century sort of college town. Something out of the 1950's. So it felt in-congruent any time he'd work in an iPod or a text message reference. It was as though we were straddling generations, comfortably floating through a 1952 collegiate paradise of baseball and puppy love and all things clean and contemplative, and then the iPhone reference would pop up, or he'd invoke the "PowerBoost" protein shake and the illusion was shattered.
However -- when it gets down to it, if you ask me "was it any good?" I'd still end up saying, "Yes." Even though it wrapped up a little too neatly, the "happily ever after" felt a little too easy, and -- FERHEAVENSSAKE -- he actually went with the lame "sports movie" ending where the crestfallen player has the opportunity to take up his cross and save the team in the most spectacularly cheesy, eye-rollingly unrealistic climax EVER. I kept thinking to myself, "Tell me he doesn't go there. Tell me he doesn't go there. Tell me -- oh NO. He's doing it. He's having the little guy come in to save the day. Damn if he didn't watch Rudy too many times growing up......"
So there was that.
But the character of Mike Schwartz really should stand the test of literary time -- were I teaching a high school Lit class, I'd probably have them dissect the Schwartzy at length because he seemed like the least wooden, most believably human character in The Novel.
Would I buy this for family members for Christmas?
Hmmmmmmmmm. Only for the family member who are literature students, I think.
Set in the world of college baseball, this is a book about aspiration, failure, and recovery. Failure is the crux of it, an important theme that Harbach handles beautifully, especially through his intimate understanding of baseball. Where he fails is in developing the theme of aspiration in a non-superficial way, reaching a resolution that is worthy of the preceding crisis, and in creating rounded characters to motivate his action.
As the excellent cover blurb will tell you, there are five major characters. Henry Skrimshander is a phenom, a shortstop with the accuracy of a laser and grace of an angel. Mike Schwartz, as huge is Henry is light, is the team captain, the man who first spotted Henry and recruited him, and remains his personal coach and mentor. Owen Dunne, Henry's roommate, is brilliant, beautiful, and gay; he plays baseball almost as an afterthought, spending most of his time in the dugout reading until called in as a pinch-hitter. Add to these Guert Affenlight, 60 years old, the charismatic president of Westish College on the shore of Lake Michigan, and his beautiful daughter Pella, in flight from a high-school marriage, who will become involved with each of the others in different ways. It's an attractive cast; what's not to like? Nothing, except that their likability results in a lack of depth when it really begins to count.
The crux of the story, as the blurb also mentions, comes during a crucial game in Henry's junior year. Now the most famous player on the team and already being scouted by the major leagues, he makes a single disastrous throw, the first error of his college career. His world falls apart, and the lives of his friends with it. This is certainly a worthy theme for a novel, both literally as it applies to baseball, and as a parallel for life. Baseball players (like the actors and musicians with whom I work) are expected to be artists with the predictability of a machine, as Harbach so rightly says. And we surely have all come into contact with the devastating effect of failure that comes about, not through incompetence, but fear of success. With such a subject, and his obvious knowledge of the game, Harbach could have written a book that went as far beyond baseball as Joseph O'Neill in NETHERLAND went beyond cricket.
So why didn't he? Largely because of a certain frivolity that leads him to treat his characters as personal playthings rather than rounded human beings. There is a clue in many of the names: Westish itself; Chef Spirodocus; players called Loondorf, Arsch, and Quentin Quisp; and the title of Affenlight's seminal (yes) book, THE SPERM-SQUEEZERS. Satire perhaps, but the humor is not consistent. He tries a bit too hard to be clever in the writing too: "His daughter ducked her beautiful port-colored head" or "As he twisted his combination lock in its casing, right left right, he could sense a gentle depression, like the hollow of a girl's neck, each time he reached the right number." Then there are the implausibilities, starting with the improbability of Westish accepting Henry solely on the word of a sophomore, and ending with a sequence of bizarre events that serve no useful purpose other than to bring the novel to a close. A large part of the plot revolves around a sexual relationship that I can't see readers accepting for a moment in a straight context, but which we somehow have to swallow in a gay one. Harbach can spin a story and his themes are valuable, but he will not reach his own potential until he can create truly independent characters and let himself be led by them.
on November 17, 2012
This is one of the worst books ever written. Being a big baseball fan, I usually avoid sports fiction. I always find the metaphors overdone. I decided to read this because many critics loved it, and some rated the book of the year. I even downloaded the sample onto my kindle. The first few chapters were easy to read, and it seemed to be going somewhere. Then it struck out.
As a previous reader mentioned, it needed an editor. There were characters and scenes coming out of nowhere. There was no real conflict. When he got close to it, he walked away. It seemed he didn't know where he wanted to go with this. The writer wants to be the next J.D. Salinger. Well, he is still playing in little league, because this thing wasted more trees than all of the bats broken in the majors this year. He got hung up on political correctness. He used the term "Freshperson" for freshmen at the college. I have spent a lot of time getting my kids to apply to colleges, and I never heard of this. I know what he meant but really. Call a spade a spade.
As for the gay relationship, he seemed to make more the point that it was gay instead of a romantic relationship. Again, he didn't seem know where he wanted to go with this. He had avenues to build conflict and he wasted it.
Save your time and money, and go have a catch with your kids. Norman Rockwell would have wanted it that way.
on October 13, 2011
I have never felt compelled to write an online review before. But as someone who reads four or five novels a month (mostly popular fiction) and works in the publishing industry, I find the praise for this book so inexplicable and disturbing that I feel the need to speak out. Cardboard, cliched characters (the coach? Henry's father? the chef? other nominees?) engaged in laughable dialogue (as you read the book, ask yourself whether you know any college students -- any -- who talk this way) in a plot held together by cheap TV-esque cleverness (a gay baseball player who after striking out says the pitcher is cute . . . a scene in which readers are led to believe the main character is overhearing two people engaged in sex behind a door -- but only because the writer holds off telling us for a few paragraphs that the character is at the gym outside the weight room). People and themes disappear without a trace (the architect husband? Gone. Aparicio Rodriguez? Disappeared. The zen-like manual, The Art of Fielding, that is the supposed central conceit of the book? Abandoned somewhere mid-novel). For all the complaints here about the ending -- and it is truly silly and pretentious -- let's not lose sight of the wreck that precedes it.
on November 19, 2011
I see John Irving is one of the many, many, many people quoted as praising Harbach. As I clawed my way through "Art of Fielding", I thought about Irving. Maybe it was Harbach's choice of setting, a college. Maybe it was his main character, Henry, and his oddball quality. Irving's books, "Garp" for example, are sprinkled liberally with out-of-reality bizarre events and characters. But there's a big difference between Irving's and Harbach's characters: I care about Irving's characters. I don't give a hoot about Harbach's bunch.
There's a tsunami of BS in this book that we're supposed to believe, it's overwhelming. The character of Schwartz, for instance. He's a sophomore but has an office on campus and apparently is the school's baseball scout with all the power and authority to pull strings and make things happen for the new recruit. But while we're told over and over that Schwartz is devoted to Henry, we see nothing more than Schwartz urging Henry to work out. There's no personal connection between them, no history. Henry appears on campus and suddenly, a few pages later, he's a junior. There were so many moments, so many experiences we could have shared with Henry and Schwartz but instead we're cheated and thus cheated out of any emotional connection. Then there's Owen, Henry's roommate. As the mulatto gay roommate he is pure Irving. And in Irving's capable telling this character would have been believable and lovable. Instead Owen is baffling. Did Schwartz recruit him, too? If so, what the heck did he see? His hitting? As far as we can tell Owen doesn't care if he plays or not. Mostly he sits in the dug out and reads. He hardly knows when he's supposed to bat next. And when he easily falls into a sexual relationship with the college president we're supposed to buy that, too. We're to believe that the president, a 63-year-old widower who as far as I could tell never had any homosexual interests before in his life, develops a 13-year-old girl's crush on Owen and yet he doesn't pause even a moment to reflect on this strange turn of events.
What is Harbach doing with this? Trying to convey a love of baseball? Trying to convey the connections between people the way baseball players are connected, an interworking whole? I haven't a clue. But as baffling as this book is the most baffling thing is that the publishing world and the people who write about it are losing their minds over "Art of Fielding." For me, this book was a colossal waste of time. I don't even think Irving's bears could have saved this one.
...or, to use a baseball baseball analogy: doesn't quite go the distance.
In the "Art of Fielding", Chad Harbach lays out a smorgasbord of venerable American literary devices: a sports story, a coming of age story, a college story. If these weren't enough, he adds a couple more: two "metabooks" re-occur within the novel: the titular "The Art of Fielding", penned by fictional Hall of Fame shortstop Aparacio Rodriguez, and "Sperm-Squeezer", written by Westish College president Guert Affenlight after discovering Herman Melville's lost lectures as an undergraduate and becoming obsessed with all things literary.
All of these orbit around a Westish College baseball season spearheaded by Henry Skrimshander, a college shortstop phenom groomed to baseball excellence by teammate, catcher and mentor/Svengali Mike Schwartz.
The book needs every one of its more than 500 pages to reveal the following separate plot lines:
-The molding of Henry by Mike into a superb shortstop, followed by his sudden mental collapse leaving him unable to make a routine throw to first base (this is, of course, bad juju when the stands are frequented by pro ball scouts).
-The return of Guert's daughter to the Lake Michigan college town after a crisis in her marriage, and her subsequent romantic entanglements with both Henry and Mike.
-The May-December gay romance between college president Guert and another Westish ballplayer, the flamboyantly gay and frequently stoned Owen Dunne.
Even though the story of Henry's breakdown and eventual redemption is presumably the central theme, the consequences of the other stories both impact and dilute the main narrative. The three ballplayers, the college president and his daughter all confront crises of confidence and episodes of loss that reach their peak as the Westish College baseball team stands on the brink of its most successful season ever (and as Henry hurtles towards college record-book parity with the legendary Rodriguez).
As a story, it's entertaining enough. Of course, we've been entertained by similar tales before: "The Paper Chase", "The World According to Garp", "A Separate Peace" and even "Love Story" will all come to mind. As the book progressed, I couldn't help think I was reading a screenplay-as-novel, perhaps with Richard Gere as the president, and fresh faces that would evoke a young Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio as the the ballplayers. When the final page arrived, I wasn't sure what Harbach wanted me to appreciate more: the baseball story, the decisions of people at critical points in their lives, or the challenges faced by anybody facing self-doubt or with questions about their place in the world. By book's end, the title book-within-a-book, frequently quoted in the early going, has been nearly forgotten by the author, leaving me to wonder why it was featured in the title.
The dialog is frequently too rich, too glib, too clever and too literary to be credible as the discourse of college students (let alone college baseball players). Equally awkward is the use of the term "freshperson" to describe first year college students. It comes across as forced and awkward (even more so when presented in dialog). Not a spolier: By the final pages, I secretly wished that at least one more of the other main characters would join the one who ends up dead, because their collective angst had simply worn out its welcome.
I won't spoil the ending except to say that it is both bitter and sweet. Some of the characters get redemption and some get devastation. It's unfortunate that a large portion of the denouement is just silly. I'm not sure if it was an homage to Melville, but it was even less believable than the witty banter of the college kids that takes us to that moment. This book started off sharp and strong with its early descriptions of Henry on the diamond. By the time their season ends....it's a relief that the book does the same.
To say The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is an intelligent novel is like saying gum is chewy. You have to actually chew gum to know the truth. If you bother to invest the time to read Harbach's wonderful novel you'll see the obvious truth to my opening sentence. That this author, a formerly out of work, copy editor with an MFA from the University of Virginia sold his baseball novel for $650,000 shouldn't be the only reason you read The Art of Fielding, but curiosity about this fact is as good a reason as any.
Set in the Midwest, the story starts with a late summer game between two unimportant amateur teams. Henry Skrimshander is a smallish player. Not able to hit well, his place on the team is cemented because of his fielding ability. I don't want to spoil anything here, so let's just say Henry impressed a player on the other team and let it go at that. A friendship formed that will end up impacting both their lives and the lives of other characters in the book. The Art of Fielding is a book about the lives of baseball players. You needn't be a baseball fan to enjoy the story but I'd venture a guess that the book may just draw you into becoming a fan.
Harbach has an easy touch in presenting his story. His prose is almost lyrical:
Page 177: A Saturday evening gloom hung in the air of the dining hall,
and it seemed that the revelry happening elsewhere on campus
had left a sad vacuum here. Dinner was no longer being
served, and the vomit-green chairs contained only a few
lonesome stragglers, gazing down at textbooks as they slowly
forked their food. A gigantic clock glowered down from the far
wall, its latticed iron hands lurching noisily to mark each
passing minute. Go somewhere else, the noise seemed to say,
anywhere but here.
Chad Harbach has a winner in The Art of Fielding. Let's hope there is more creative juice waiting to be squeezed.
I highly recommend The Art of Fielding. Terrific, Terrific, Terrific.
Peace to all.
on January 6, 2012
I was genuinely excited to get this book after reading all of the glowing praise for it, especially it's comparisons to Jonathan Franzen's work. The beginning of the novel was enjoyable, and Harbach's writing style was witty and evocative. But things began to fall apart quickly. There are minor things that others have mentioned, such as some of the overly precious names of the characters - Starblind? - and the writing varied from overly twee at times to Harbach being way too pleased with how clever he was being. These sorts of things can be forgiven, but there were more major flaws that made it difficult for me to finish the book. This book is proof that overall good writing can't carry a novel, you actually need a handle on plot and character to move things forward.
The characters, in too many instances, were thinly drawn and the conflicts that arose between them were never really explored - what happened to Pella's husband? Why did Schwartz just forgive Henry for his indiscretion with Pella? What were some of the characters doing in the story at all, rather than to serve as a stereotype, such as the head of the kitchen who takes Pella under his wing - look at what we can learn from the salt of the earth and all the important lessons they can impart!
But it was the plot that infuriated me the most - the romance between Affenlight and Dunne was unbelievable and seemed to lack a real connectivity with the rest of the story. The role that it played in the ending of the novel was thin and badly contrived. Henry's breakdown was difficult to actually empathize with because the character lacked anything for us to relate to - he existed solely as "the baseball prodigy who lost his way." The actions that the characters take at the ending are incredibly strange and bear little connection to their behaviors before. I really wish I understood why this book has had such heaps of praise handed over to it - at first I wondered if I just didn't get it. Then I realized that this is just one of those books that everyone feels the desire to call a Great Book, and without the instructions most reviewers got for doing so, I was left with little to take away from this besides annoyance at a few evenings wasted.
on December 17, 2012
I tried, really I did. This book is a best seller. It's gotten rave reviews and all the book clubs are reading it. And, more importantly, it came highly recommended by a cousin whose opinion I value. We have very different taste but this sounded like one we'd agree on.
Wrong. He loved it. I can't imagine why.
I liked the beginning - enjoyed getting to know Henry, watching this unlikely kid turn into the baseball phenom at his school. I love rooting for the underdog. But that (shockingly) turns out to be the smallest part of the story. Henry starts to (SPOILER ALERT!) slump. And not just a teeny slump but an industrial-strength slump which unfortunately didn't seem believable to me and frustrated me so much that I didn't want to read more about it.
And at the heart of this book is a really icky relationship (ANOTHER SPOILER) between the college president and a male student. Not icky because it's a homosexual relationship, but icky, icky, icky because he's the DAMN COLLEGE PRESIDENT. Wow, am I the only one who finds this offensive?
It could work (but doesn't) if there was anything vulnerable about either character that gives you any understanding about how they could let that happen. They're not even likable, either, making the relationship even more sleazy and repulsive. Sorry, I just don't want to read about that.
I read 54% of The Art of Fielding (according to my Kindle) and I just don't care what happens to any of these characters.
I'm puzzled what people see in this book. Especially my cousin who's kind of a conservative guy who likes romantic comedies. This does not compute. Sorry, Harv.