Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis

Henry's glove Zero is now my second favourite baseball mitt in literature
(after Ally's glove in The Catcher In The Rye)
now that shortstop Derek Jeter has retired and the baseball playoff season is upon us, I thought I'd repost this from two years ago (it wasn't my favourite novel of 2012 but it was in my top ten)...
You ever read a book that was so good that once you finished it that you began it again immediately? No me neither. Well not for a long time anyway. I did this however with Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding which is the sweetest debut novel I've read since Zadie Smith's White Teeth. This is what good literary fiction should be: arresting, witty, passionate, with great characters and an elegant prose style. On the surface its the story of a young blue collar shortstop called Henry Skrimshander and a kid called Mike Schwartz who scouts Henry for a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Schwartz works on Henry like a big brother mentor gone mad and turns him from a savant shortstop who can't hit or run into a legitimate baseball prospect. That's the surface but what the book is really about is loyalty and friendship and disappointment and love. You know, life. 
Just as Henry is on the verge of greatness he catches Chuck Knoblauch/Steve Blass disease, or as they call it in golf, the yips. There's a nice subplot about the President of the University, his daughter and a love quadrangle between her, Henry, Mike and Henry's gay room-mate Owen; but for me the book's heart was the relationship between Mike and Henry and how they become brothers. 
What makes Harbach a much better writer than someone like, say, Jonathan Franzen, (or Jonathan Safran Froer or Michael Chabon) is that Harbach writes with an authentic blue collar voice than doesn't sound fake and condescending. Most American novelists writing literary fiction are the victims of private schools and elite universities and the Iowa Writers Workshop which inculcates phoniness and renders them incapable of understanding or expressing what it is to be poor in America. I know nothing of Harbach's background except that he went to Harvard, but he writes as if he knows what its like to work in a foundry or get up at 5.a.m. to wash dishes. Whether he actually knows or is just very gifted is neither here nor there. He gives us characters in blue collar occupations who don't know where the next rent check is going to come from and these characters are utterly convincing. You can tell the difference Harbach dialogue and Froer/Franzen dialogue immediately. It's the difference between the authentic and the inauthentic, the real and the patronising. (If I was on the Romney campaign I'd slip this book to the candidate for immediate bedtime reading.)
Like all great baseball novels there is an element of yearning and transcendence in The Art of Fielding. Baseball is not America's past-time (that in fact is football) but if America were a more perfect place it would be. The Art of Fielding joins Shoeless Joe, The Natural, The Great American Novel, The Boys of Summer, Bang The Drum Slowly and Moneyball as one of the great baseball books. Baseball, like cricket, is an intellectual game, where intellect (and thinking too much) will kill you on the field. I liked this short conversation between Mike and Henry near the end of the novel: 
"This is the psych floor," Mike said.
Henry nodded. "Okay."
"Figured I'd give you a heads up. They're going to send in the shrinks to talk to you about not eating. 'Your anorexia', as they referred to it."
"I told them only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis."