P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34– 52

he art of fielding by chad harbachBryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Brian McCann and Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April..

The great dilemma for just about almost every character in The Art of Fielding is that they can’t seem to make up their mind if they love or hate something enough to continue it or let it go, from baseball, to women, to men, to men’s beards. Westish College is home to everyone, no one wants to leave it–whether they’d be leaving for law school or the minor leagues–and this refusal to leave is so strong that individuals might even sabotage their own dreams and futures to keep living what they’ve always been. It’s about a fear of success. It’s about a fear of the unknown. It’s about boys refusing to be men–the President of the college basically lives in a dorm room–and it all seeps out of the idea that what’s familiar, repetitive, and habit forming is simultaneously beautiful and neurotic. In other words, this book is very, very modern, but we all knew that. In fact, this book is so modern that, at times, I feel like I’ve already read it, yet my familiarity with its themes, plot, and characters isn’t ruining it for me–it’s actually enhancing my appreciation of Harbach’s talents:

It’s one thing to name a bunch of great books, but it’s another thing entirely to make it appear as if your book belongs alongside with them, like it was already a part of the canon.

The Art of Fielding makes explicit nods to Melville’s Moby Dick, is reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and carries with it the dull Midwest of Fitzgerald’s imagination, but the book also makes subtle nods to Hemingway, like in Chapter 34 when Schwartz and Pella break up. She obviously feels that Henry is a wedge between them, and Schwartz senses that friction: “She was trying to insert herself into his relationship with Henry ” (239), which actually makes her the wedge. And then Harbach even drops the phrase “the end of something” (280), in reference to Affenlight and Owen’s relationship, which has gotta be an allusion to Hemingway’s short story of the same name, or at least one hell of a coincidence, seeing as how it follows six chapters worth of Schwartz and Pella stewing over what went wrong between them. I mean, Hemingway’s story features Nick Adams breaking up with his girlfriend, Marjorie, by a river, that flows on by as he sits stagnantly on the bank with Bill (who comes out of nowhere) eating a picnic basket of food that most people would have eaten with their girlfriend. Replace the river with Lake Michigan and Henry/Schwartz/Affenlight with Nick, and Hemingway’s story becomes Harbach’s, minus a Melville statue that is more capable of attaining happiness than any of the characters in either story appear to be.

So, I guess aside from seconding Pete Beatty’s earlier question (does the midwest make you gay?), I’m wondering how others are perceiving the sheer been-there-done-that modernity of the book? Is it bloody brilliant, or is it off putting? Does it ring true, or does it feel like Harbach is overreaching, forcing comparisons to past greats that would be unwarranted if he didn’t keep reminding us of the similarities? And why is it okay for a writer to do this, but if, for lack of a baseball example, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James were to wag their tongue like Michael, we’d all become anal retentive?

And no matter what your answer is, if you’re like me, you’ve become just like the characters and are procrastinating against reading the rest of the book, not wanting it to end, peering out onto whatever body of water just happens to be the closest to you, wishing it were an escape route.

6 Responses to “P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34– 52”

  • I felt something of the same inertia, reluctance to finish reading the book — which I completely enjoyed, although it is not (and not intended as, something tells me) anything more than a good story well told. Harbach isn’t auditioning for literary cred or hipness, he’s merely borrowing here and there from other recipes as he goes — it’s funny how most people with haute-literary tastes seem to automatically judge that as lazy. PT Anderson, as a filmmaker, borrows lots of shot setups and tricks from 1970s filmmakers, and I don’t hold it against him, yet I had to coach myself to accept this trait of Harbach’s novel.

  • Just to clarify: I, too, have completely enjoyed this book.

  • To be honest, I find the allusions a tad heavy-handed. It’s an eminently readable book but it’s littered with exposition, and I’m getting more shades of an adult Matt Christopher than, say, Hemingway. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – the whole “great books” concept seems to be on the gradual decline – but stylistically, there’s no comparison to Hemingway. If anything, I wish Harbach didn’t feel the need to throw out so many enormous names. What’s wrong with comparing yourself to…I don’t know, Walter Tevis?

  • dougiejays: i agree with you that any nods to hemingway that i may have seen had nothing to do with style, and i’ve got to admit that my knowledge of Walter Tevis only goes as deep as Paul Newman. wondering now if i should remedy that.

  • The Hustler is terrific – film and book are way up on my personal lists. But his later books were a little more mainstream, the kind of stuff that isn’t always earmarked as “literature.” And they’re still great. From Wikipedia, Ondaatje: “The Queen’s Gambit is sheer entertainment. It is a book I reread every few years for the pure pleasure and skill of it.”

  • “this book is so modern that, at times, I feel like I’ve already read it” is starting to give me trouble. Specifically, I feel I’ve already read it in approximately 200 issues of the New Yorker that graced my parents’ guest bathroom throughout the 1970s. The young divorcee, the infatuated college professor in his twilight, the cute character names . . . zzzz.

    DAMN, I loved the first hundred pages of this book. Loved each of the people I met there and hoped nothing bad would ever happen to them. But by that, I thought I meant injury, tragedy, and heartbreak, not tumbling into cliche.

    I’m also kind of annoyed that Affenlight’s obsession with O is presented as a done deal, rather than shown in its coming alive. I think if their scenes happened before our eyes, and if they were done well (which Harbach is certainly capable of), I might root for them a bit.

    Oh, well. Will stick it out for thost first hundred pages, for Aparicio’s Art of Fielding, and in hopes of another wonder like Pella’s first meeting with Chef Spirodocus.

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