Even people who do not have half-written novels stashed away in old desks or old computer files can be forgiven for reacting to much-hyped new novels with a groan and then reading with a flicker of hope that the book will turn out to be a dud. I had some of that in recent months reading Jennifer Egan and Tom Rachman, but loved both their books, so figured maybe with Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" I was due to really dislike an over-hyped book.
Instead I loved it -- and I think Harbach has succeeded in writing a book that has major importance -- and will be influential -- both in the context of American novels and baseball writing. That's no mean feat.
First, to the baseball part -- there are two major risks to writing a baseball novel, one, that you can easily lose the baseball-loving reader with one false note, and two, you can lose everyone else if the balance between "baseball" and "novel" tips too far toward baseball, as if the work in question were only a fictional exploration of a sport without the Frankenstein's monster spark of life that turns a novel into a living entity unto itself.
Harbach avoids both these pitfalls and does so with a disarming lack of self-aggrandizement. The story he tells of a talented pipsqueak shortstop befriended by a big, beefy catcher on a mission, who ushers him into the world of fictional Westish College and becomes much more than a mentor, moves far beyond baseball or sports, including also surprising narratives on the college president and his daughter. I for one found all Harbach's main characters likable and intriguing; I wanted to know them.
At the same time even as a former professional baseball writer, one of those guys who gets paid to sit in the press box and write about hundreds of games per year, I found Harbach's baseball imagination thrilling and authentic and unforced. There is a way in which one can write from inside the game, or inside a deep connection to it, and Harbach does that, describing sequences on the diamond with a taut, unapologetic fondness.
Beyond that, though, baseball lives inside of him -- and it shows. It can get dreary to start talking about life lessons culled from baseball, but the fact is, as a game of disappointment, a game of failure, baseball does have the power to teach. One of its most important lessons can be summed up in the difference between a pitcher who can throw a great fastball or curve and a pitcher who knows how to pitch: Put simply, often during the heat of a game, a bad pitch is better than a good pitch if it works in a larger sequence. Put another way, looking impressive with a given pitch is never the point; knowing how to pitch often means going through a whole game without ever wowing anyone with a single delivery, but understanding in an uncanny way how they all fit together.
Even in his baseball terminology, Harbach -- like his shortstop Henry -- puts together a dazzling streak of successfully making a play (forming a phrase) without the slightest hitch. He does make one odd bobble, which doesn't quite count, because it comes in the form of dialogue between his baseball players, but here it is:
"'How's he looking, Meat?'
"'He's poppin' it, Mike. Really poppin' it.'
A deuce is a curve, and no ball player I've ever talked to -- that would be hundreds -- would refer to a pitcher popping a curve. A fastball is poppin', yes, absolutely, and you always hear coaches talking about a hitter with pop, which means a smallish guy who can hit for power. Does this all sound like quibbling? It might be -- the point is, it's the only place in the entire 512-page novel where even the tiniest quibble could be raised on Harbach's baseball bona fides, and that's an astonishing feat given how much fun he has with his baseball scenes.
"The next Amherst hitter walked to load the bases," he writes late in the novel. "Up came a lefty, thin as a toothbrush, who held the bat straight over his head as if trying to catch lightning. With the count 2 and 0, he hung back on a big slow curveball and punched it the other way, just past a diving Boddington."
My sense is that Harbach's novel comes along at a time when baseball writing as a whole needed a reminder about the primacy of narrative and character -- the elements of good fiction. There was a war going on for a while in baseball writing, where fans of Bill James were arguing that people like scouts and traditional baseball writers really knew nothing about the game -- and only the smart new breed with their statistical analysis knew what was what. Whoever might have been right or wrong in that debate, arguments about who is right and who is wrong are boring -- much more interesting are stories that make you care about what happens next on a baseball diamond, even when there are twists and turns you could not possibly have anticipated or predicted.
I had the feeling throughout the novel, and maybe this was just me, that Harbach was not really writing about baseball at all, but rather, the magic of creativity, of being a writer. All of his characters love books, even Henry, the shortstop, whose early life has been defined by his reverent rereading of a fictional nonfiction baseball book called, yes, "The Art of Fielding." Book love saturates the story, especially in the musings of the college president, Guert Affenlight.
"Nineteen seventy-three," he reflects at one point. "In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam, Gravity's Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream -- the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation -- the Modernists of the First World War -- would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population."
Later on the same page, he continues his thoughts: "Literature could turn you into an asshole; he'd learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties."
I agree that literature can turn you into a jerk and I think in its way the quote comments on novelists who know too much about writing-school-polished techniques and not enough about life or how people really are. There is a quality in Harbach, open, searching, not convinced he has all the answers, that makes me think "The Art of Fielding" is much more than a promising debut, but that rarity even among highly touted novels by young American writers, a book that could serve as the foundation for a long and thrilling career as a novelist.
Follow Steve Kettmann on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SteveKettmann