P&P Reading Club: David Matthews on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbachDavid Matthews is a former Deadspin scribe and nnow one of those freelance writers in Brookly. Durng 90s First Basemen Week, he wrote about the stylish Fred McGriff.

Through the first 230 or so pages, The Art of Fielding has introduced me to a wonderful small community (near Door County, Wisconsin, where I have summered before–if one can call getting drunk with high-school friends at or around bonfires, sneaking into resort pools, and playing far too much mini-golf “summering”) in Westish College. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and spending time with these characters and relating to them–Pella’s inner monologue concerning whether or not she should clean Schwartzy’s dishes perhaps most of all. I admit it, I am a fussbudget. While it sucks for them, watching Henry and Mike deal with disappointment is nothing short of compelling. As much as I have wanted to race ahead of this reading club, I am holding back in order to prolong this reading experience (and also because I share Pete’s sentiment that things are going to get exponentially worse before returning to the brightness that peaked with the montage of both Henry’s and the Harpooners’ rapid ascension–I mean, I hope).

However, something has been nagging at me thus far: This novel’s striking familiarity, the small-town setting, the host of characters dealing with their own struggles amidst their standing within the greater community, etc. What I’m getting at is the book reminds me a whole hell of a lot of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. According to Bartleby, that work “allows us to enter the alternately complex, lonely, joyful and strange lives of the inhabitants of the small town.” If that doesn’t describe a wunderkind shortstop coming down with the case of the yips, an eloper attempting to make up for lost time, and a preeminent Melville scholar holing up (?) at a small liberal arts college in rural Wisconsin, I don’t know what does. Where Anderson was focusing on the loneliness and isolation of living in a small town, Harbach is probing the very same among an even smaller set of people: A father and daughter who might only be connected by a tattoo, friends whose relationship resembles a teeter-totter, one that is just now starting to change direction.

Most of all, I am reminded of the character George Willard, the young man about town and central character in Anderson’s collection. I see parts of him in the relationship between Guert Affenlight and Owen Dunne. The George who is looking for sexual experience and later wants to fall in love in order to have material for a short story. Guert seems in a state of infatuation with Owen, and it would be sweet if it was May-December love, and not a last-semester fling. Like George Willard eventually does, I feel Guert will also find Owen, or someone else, to stimulate him in a multitude of ways, and Harbach’s laid the groundwork for that to occur.

However, and I may just be thinking this to support my own theory, Owen reminds me of the darker side of George Willard. The one we meet much earlier who acts superior to his surroundings. Whereas George just sort of wants to hightail it to the big city, and get laid if he can, Owen seems to have undergone trauma before having his cheekbone crushed by an errant throw. We don’t know all that much about Owen’s breakup, but it seems like he may be playing with Guert thus far, something Pete seems to have seen as well. I hope I am wrong, but I am reminded of the following passage in the “Nobody Knows” section of Winesburg, Ohio, where Willard takes advantage of a young woman named Louise in order to lose his virginity:

“He remembered the look that had lurked in the girl’s eyes when they had met on the streets and thought of the note she had written. Doubt left him. The whispered tales concerning her that had gone about town gave him confidence. He became wholly the male, bold and aggressive. In his heart there was no sympathy for her. “Ah, come on, it’ll be all right. There won’t be anyone know anything. How can they know?” he urged. They began to walk along a narrow brick sidewalk between the cracks of which tall weeds grew. Some of the bricks were missing and the sidewalk was rough and irregular. He took hold of her hand that was also rough and thought it delightfully small. “I can’t go far,” she said and her voice was quiet, unperturbed.”

Now, Owen is by no means a virgin, and unfortunately for both men, he currently cannot open his mouth, but their secret affair or courtship rings out when I reread this passage. Is Owen, someone for whom everything comes easy, tired of moderating the Prison or High School games and looking for a new challenge before heading off to Japan for his prestigious fellowship? Or something else entirely?

So am I grasping at straws with these comparisons? Is the Guert-Owen relationship just the normal fumbling and bumbling that comes with new love, or are we on the cusp of seeing immeasurable heartbreak handed down on one or both of these men? Bigger picture-wise: do you think Chad Harbach is going to be inducted into the American literary canon? Is such even possible anymore?

1 Responses to “P&P Reading Club: David Matthews on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33”

  • I don’t think the comparisons to Sherwood Anderson’s characters are off base at all. Glad to see someone else saw them. I posted a comment yesterday about it, and when no one responded, I wondered if I was walking towards a cliff and no one wanted to let me know.

    And, yeah, I don’t know if you can get into the canon anymore. I mean, reading audiences are too fractured now, aren’t they?

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