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96 of 118 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Aspiration, Failure, Recovery, August 15, 2011
This review is from: The Art of Fielding: A Novel (Hardcover)
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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.
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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 17, 2011 7:52:54 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 14, 2011 4:11:06 PM PDT
I originally wrote a comment here wondering why almost all my first votes (5 out of the first 6) were negative. Obviously that is no longer the case (for which I am very grateful), but I am not deleting the comment completely since many of the responses below follow on from that. Roger.

Posted on Aug 18, 2011 3:47:42 PM PDT
Hi Roger,
I have the same feeling of the lack of gumption in someone posting unhelpful but not identifying themselves.
Your review was intelligently done, as always and was helpful to me.
Mike

Posted on Aug 18, 2011 3:49:11 PM PDT
Burgmicester says:
Roger, interesting review. Between Bug's and your review, I'm now definitely going to have to read it and see what I think.

I do have a book for you from the Vine - Wunderkind. I think that you might just love it.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 18, 2011 6:03:25 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 18, 2011 6:03:54 PM PDT
Mike, thanks for your sympathy. For some reason, this seems to one of those books you are simply not allowed to be critical about. I have now amassed 4 unhelpfuls!

Burg, thank you too. I have been talking to Bug a lot about what we both wrote; you should ask her. I think you will find that she was influenced by writing first, and I was by adding a contrary view to so many positives.

Wunderkind? Is that the one about the Middle European pianist? I thought I had ordered it from Vine, but they say not. I do tend to be cautious with books about musicians, though, and pianists are a different species of animal altogether. Roger.

Posted on Aug 22, 2011 7:26:45 AM PDT
You can't see readers accepting "a sexual relationship" in a straight context, but "we somehow have to swallow [it] in a gay one." What does that mean? "Somehow"? "Have to"? "Swallow"??!! Is that because straight relationships are true, authentic, acceptable? And gay relationships are trivial, immature, superficial? Sounds like a nasty double standard to me.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 22, 2011 8:20:07 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 22, 2011 4:04:01 PM PDT
SPOILER AHEAD!
Not at all, Robert. Gay relationships have the same range of meaningfulness as straight ones. It was difficult for me to be more specific in the body of my review without giving away the plot. But I find the relationship between the College President and a student simply incredible. It is not the attraction, which could strike any time. Nor even the fact that he follows through with it, although people in that position are generally more circumspect. But the fact that it is treated by both parties as something of an idyllic blessing, which I would have thought the circumstances would have made impossible to sustain. I cannot imagine such a plot twist being given credulity in a male-female context; if it existed at all, it would be seen as a gross abuse of the power differential. But since we are expected to rejoice at the epiphany for the older man finally coming out of the closet, all the aspects which would be implausible or indeed prohibited have to be set aside -- at least until a college board member intervenes much later. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 29, 2011 6:21:04 PM PDT
Roger, I cannot understand why people will just routinely vote "unhelpful" when what they mean is, "I had a different reading experience." I do wish that Amazon would try to define its policy as to what constitutes "unhelpful."

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 29, 2011 7:46:32 PM PDT
Thank you, Jill, and of course I agree. Fortunately, most of the votes I have been getting recently have been helpful ones. I takes a time for less adulatory views to surface. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 7, 2011 11:49:50 AM PDT
Jean Brandt says:
Roger,
Above all else I value honesty. Your review was, unlike some reviews on this site, about the content of the novel and how you felt about it.
Sometimes a negative review will be the deciding factor, for me, in favor of buying the book.
Not all readers are looking for the same thing and I have found that what another reader may see as a negative, will cause me to want to explore further.
Main thing, the review is about the book, you read the book and you were honest in your review. See no reason to give you an "unhelpful" because I may not agree with your opinion.
Haven't read the book yet but I plan on it !

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 8, 2011 4:48:20 AM PDT
Jean, that is a wonderful compliment you pay me. Just so long as my honesty does not turn me into merely an unrepentant curmudgeon! Roger.
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