Back on May 21, I quoted a passage from Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding in order to make a point about the necessity of re-writing to get our work in the shape we want it to be. I’d like to take this opportunity to praise Harbach’s novel as a whole, in case my previous post didn’t make that clear. It’s a long, cleanly-written tale of baseball, college life, dreams of the life ahead of us, and dreams of the life we wish we could live. Harbach has a fine sense of structure and detail, one especially impressive over such a long story. He forgets nothing, large or small, and the pieces of his tale fit together in a satisfying way.
There is rather a lot of baseball in there, and the excellence of Harbach’s novel is that he can show us and explain to us the nuances of the game without overwhelming us. We care about Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, and Owen Dunne because Harbach reveals to us how hard the work is to be a baseball player and how hard the work is for them to be human beings. We care about Pella Affenlight, not just because she’s Schwartz’s girlfriend, but because she’s got problems of her own in figuring out what she wants to be in life. We care about her father, Guert Affenlight, not just because he’s the Westish College president, but because he’s a man like us, a fellow bound by his duty to an institution larger than himself, but pulled by a strong passion towards a happiness he’s never really felt before. Harbach’s portrait of academic life is not altogether flattering, but that’s all right: it’s not an altogether flattering career choice for anyone, in its smallness, its meanness, and its pettiness. But thousands of talented women and men have survived that institutional behavior and have communicated their love of learning and the life of the mind to us, and Affenlight does so, too. The only unfortunate choice he makes in his academic career (and perhaps the only unfortunate choice Harbach makes in the novel) is in the title of his most noteworthy scholarly book: The Sperm-Squeezers, a study of literary attitudes toward sexuality in the nineteenth century. Harbach probably means for us to be amused by that title, to laugh at it. If so, he failed with me. Affenlight’s choice of it just makes me cringe.
The most enigmatic character in the book is Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate, whose name we might associate with the striking seventeenth-century divines John Donne and Owen Feltham or the title character in John Irving’s novel from the 1980s, A Prayer For Owen Meany. Dunne is an exceptionally-quiet, introspective fellow, but he’s a key to Harbach’s book, in the way that Juliette Binoche’s portrayal of a mysterious lover is the key to all of the passions that are unlocked in the movie Damage (1992). Harbach’s handling of such potentially-incendiary material is much gentler than Louis Malle’s; indeed, Dunne’s aloofness, his stillness like the lake that surrounds Westish College, helps turn the novel back toward Henry Skrimshander, and how that talented shortstop solves the problem that torments him throughout the story. Dunne steps up, in the end, and gives a voice and a shape to all the striving of his friends, without in the least telling any of them what to do with their lives. You’ll find that ending quite moving, I daresay, one that penetrates pretty far into the mystery of baseball and into the meaning of life itself.