Friday, July 8, 2011
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
(Now, if you are trying to comprehend how a book about baseball could steal the limelight from a literary classic such as Beloved, (especially when literature wins over sports every day of the week in my mind,) the answer is simple: baseball is much more fun than slavery, even if you aren't a fan of the sport in general. And it's summer, so fun wins the day.)
The Art of Fielding doesn't come out until the beginning of September, (many thanks to the publisher for sending me my copy!) but the synopsis is simple and should become fairly familiar before long (I'm expecting to see this book pop up more and more the closer we get to September). The bare bones description goes like this: 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 disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.
Sure, this book might be about college, about baseball...and about Moby Dick, (an interesting addition I wasn't expecting,) but more than those things, it is about the people: real, layered, complex, flawed people. I can't say that I'd want them all in my life, but I adored being able to spend a bit of time with them. Their idiosyncrasies were exaggerated just enough to make them humorous while still being a great example of the quirks we all have.
President Affenlight and his daughter Pella are definitely not the most stable family--if you can call them a family at all. They both have some level of obsession with appearances and expectations, although they would most likely deny it. Honestly, I wouldn't be able to spend much time around these two before wanting to slap them upside them head. I don't think either of them really knew what they were doing.
Henry and his roommate Owen make odd additions to the college baseball team in very different ways. Owen is one of those people that comes off as incredibly self-assured, (which still has me wondering what drives him,) while Henry--in some ways the person whom events revolve around--is one of those guys that is a mystery even to himself. And not in the mysterious/captivating sense, more in the content-being-behind-the-scenes sort of way. You just aren't sure (and he probably isn't either) how many layers you'd find if you were to try to get to know the real Henry.
And then there's the gruff, lovable Schwartz. Schwartzy. Shorts. I loved Mike Schwartz, even though he didn't take care of his pain (or his apartment) properly. He put others first, just as a way of life, and I wanted to give him a big teddy-bear hug more than once. I don't know if I would have washed his dishes for him...but maybe...even though I think washing dishes is about on par with scrubbing toilets. Schwartz carried this book for me; he made me care.
For characters that are so brilliantly portrayed, in situations so keenly felt, there is a surprising elusiveness to them. Instead of feeling underdeveloped, though, this is an element that adds to the novel's depth and meaning. None of them are perfect--far from it--but that's part of the joy and charm behind this book. If anything, they show us that we are all on a journey to know ourselves and figure out why we do the things we do. Perhaps their mistakes can help illuminate our own.
What else do I want to say? I know I'm going to leave something out...
- For a chunkster (500+ pages) this was remarkably quick to read. The writing is spry and full of humor, the observations are entertaining and witty while retaining a remarkable amount of insight. The pace is great, balancing detail with fascinating plot turns.
- For a sports UNenthusiast like myself, the baseball factor was (surprisingly) not a barrier. In fact, it had me fondly remembering the year when I played T-Ball (too bad the one photo of me holding a bat is proving un-findable). There's something patriotic about baseball for me...or there was until the strike in the mid-90s which destroyed my lingering fancies of old-fashioned sports-related romantic political chivalry. I won't go as far as to say that the book has made me like baseball again, but close. Pretty close.
- A warning on some of the content...the mild locker-room humor, language & antics really weren't a big deal. The bigger thing for me was the rather casual attitude toward sex, especially [*possible spoiler*] between Affenlight (the 60 year-old president of the college) and Owen. Hrm. [*that's all*] Nothing sexual was ever described in detail, it's more the idea behind it all that bugged me. I was able to set aside my opinions and enjoy the book, otherwise it could have affected my reading experience.
How does a book with so many apparent strikes against it from the get-go leave me sad that I'm done, reluctant to pick up a different book, and eager to read it all over again? Talented writing, insightful observations, depth in the characters, and a sense of humor. If you enjoy it as much as I did, you might consider nominating for the Indie Lit Awards--out of the 2011 fiction I've read so far, this is certainly a contender.
Title: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Published: Liitle, Brown 2011 (release date is September 7)
Read For: Review--Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy!
My Rating: 5 stars
Eligible to be nominated!