Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Take me out

Minor league baseball was thrown out of Portland three years ago to make room for Major League Soccer.  I don't know anything about soccer (beyond the fact that the ball is supposed to get kicked into the goal), so I miss baseball.  This summer, though, a really, really minor (Single A) team has taken up residence in a nearby suburb. They have a nice Oregon name too, the Hops. I'll try to make a game this summer.

All this means I had high hopes for The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Harbach is a co-founder of a literary (print!) magazine, n+1. There's nothing like a literary ode to the sport of baseball. The green field, the untimed pace, the warm weather, the beer and the hotdogs. Like many a baseball novel, Harbach's book has a certain amount of this, but it shouldn't come as a surprise that the sport is really a metaphor. "The Art of Fielding" is a book of sports aphorisms written by retired shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (who sounds like he's modeled on the great Ozzie Smith), but the art of fielding is also the art of living, of growing up, of finding your place in the world. And that's mostly what this book is about.

Baseball catcher Mike Schwartz, a junior at Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, spots shortstop Henry Skrimshander playing in one of his last games of high school. Henry is an outstanding defensive player, but he's physically small and lacks hitting power. He knows he won't be playing his beloved game for much longer. But Mike sees his potential and recruits him to enroll at Westish. Henry is golden for two years, intense training with Mike makes him a better hitter, and as Henry begins his junior year, pro scouts are starting to play attention. But then Henry makes an errant throw, striking his roommate, the self-described "gay mulatto" Owen Dunne, in the face. Henry loses his nerve and soon he can't even get the ball out of glove to throw.

Owen Dunne plays an important role in this novel's other main (and majorly icky) plot strand: He becomes the secret lover of Westish's 60-year-old president, Guert Affenlight. And when Affenlight's estranged daughter, Pella, appears on campus again, the romantic complications get more ... well, complex.

This fell really flat for me. It felt more like a college novel than a baseball one. The writing, while occasionally taking off into ecstatic flight as it described Lake Michigan in winter or a beautiful day at the ballpark, mostly came off as graduate-writing-program pretentious.  The omniscient narrator talked down to me (Melville comes up a lot), and at other times it seemed to be enjoying its own inside jokes. I try to give it respect as a work of literature and then the term "freshpersons" is used. And what about all those ridiculous names (what kind of name is Guert?). It's difficult to care for any of the characters here -- they are all extremely self-absorbed and not interesting with it.  At the end, even Henry's choices grow tiresome.

Holter Graham reads the novel. I think he set the tone of the novel for me as he captured the omniscient narrator's ironic tone in his reading. I felt patronized by both the novel and the narration, but I believe that Graham and I were reading the same book, in that his narration was the way I was interpreting the novel. I remained interested in the story, though, with some lively character interpretations and a compelling pace. Graham is skillful in eliciting true emotion in the few places in the novel that call for it, most notably with Henry's initial suffering, which Graham's sensitive reading leaves you helpless and as hopeless as he is.

In searching for something pithy to say in conclusion, I ask the following:  Does my frustration with the book arise from the fact that I couldn't tell what this author was trying to deliver: Was it a baseball story (a pretty cliched one), a comedy of small college errors (not very funny), a dissertation on the many ways we can love (and destroy) one another (no revelations here), or an MFA thesis? Does not being able to figure this out from a book impact our appreciation? Does our enjoyment stem from feeling like we are on the same page as the author?

[Ozzie Smith fields a ground ball at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002, the year he was inducted (six years after he retired). The photograph was taken by Monowi and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Narrated by Holter Graham
AudioGO, 2011.  16:00

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