My diary on Moby-Dick reminded me I've read a relatively new book with a secondary plot about Herman Melville in the midwest. Very VERY well -- deftly, in fact -- written first novel, with an well-told story, almost as if John Updike had come back with a really subtle sense of humor. A book the reviewers tried hard not to like because of its provenance. I write, of course, of
I don't think the blurb by Franzen on the cover helps either. Anyhow, I really liked it and I'll explain why below the great orange bookplate.
Yes, it's about baseball. Yes, it's about college life. Yes, it has relationships of all kinds. This is Chad Harbach, the man who wrote it
(Beowulf Sheehan, for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
Did I mention first novel? Grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, graduated from Harvard, entered a MFA program at the University of Virginia several years later. Wrote a story about college baseball, shopped it, meanwhile co-founded the literary journal n+1, continued to shop it, setting off a bidding war which Little, Brown won with an advance of $650,000.
As the book was being readied for publication, Vanity Fair ran a story in its October 2011 issue, "The Book on Publishing"
With The Art of Fielding, has Chad Harbach written the e-book era’s Great American Novel? Keith Gessen follows the sweeping story of a man, a book, and an industry fighting the odds.
Alas, this is not a story that is available on the net, but the first chapter of the novel, which ran in the same issue, is, so here's a sample. One of the main characters, Henry Skrimshander, a preternaturally good shortstop, has arrived in a room at Westish College on a baseball scholarship, and he's contemplating his dorm room:
Though his classmates supposedly hailed from “all fifty states, Guam, and twenty-two foreign lands,” as President Affenlight said in his convocation address, they all seemed to Henry to have come from the same close-knit high school, or at least to have attended some crucial orientation session he’d missed. They traveled in large packs, constantly texting the other packs, and when two packs converged there was always a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing on the cheek. No one invited Henry to parties or offered to hit him grounders, so he stayed home and played Tetris on Owen’s computer. Everything else in his life seemed beyond his control, but the Tetris blocks snapped together neatly, and his scores continued to rise. He recorded each day’s achievements in his physics notebook. When he closed his eyes at night the sharp-cornered shapes twisted and fell.
You see the light touch.
What happened next in the life of the book reminds me of the reaction to Pauline Kael's review of the rough cut of Robert Altman's film, Nashville in rough cut in the New Yorker, March 3, 1975. In rough cut. The long knives were out for the film when it opened a couple of months later (I called in sick to see the first show the day it opened, at the Coronet on Third Avenue, and it was worth it).
The Art of Fielding was well enough written not to attract all that much abuse in the initial reviews. Bob Hoover, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was fairly typical, concluding thus:
"The Art of Fielding," however, feels claustrophobic, confined to the conventional campus setting with little sense of a world outside the college -- and leaving us with the feeling that this smartly written book aspires to be just that and nothing more.
Hype? Disregard it. It's a baseball novel that talks about relationships.
Seven months later, B. R. Myers wrote what can only be described as a hit piece in the Atlantic, A Swing and a Miss: Why the latest hyped-up work of staggering genius fizzles. It's very much a "look-at-me" article, and even Myers, trying VERY hard to dispose of it as a "fad" book, didn't (read Myers for the hubris, basically).
Anyhow, it made the New York Times top 100 list, which brought me to put it on hold at the Los Angeles Public Library, and when it finally arrived in my branch, I read it over a three day period (NOT in one sitting, but I didn't want to read it that fast and, beside, I had other work to do). I liked it, especially the Melville references, and here's Bob Hoover again.
Having some fun, Mr. Harbach invents a visit by Melville to the Wisconsin school in 1880, rediscovered in 1969 by Affenlight when he was an undergrad. The discovery prompts Westish to embrace the Melville theme, hence the Harpooners.
It's about baseball, and more than baseball, and I liked it. It has some gay content too.