P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Finale

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 set of chapters we read for last week ended with Affenlight telling a soup-poisoned Henry, “Don’t forget your uniform,” so we’re clearly on the road to recovery this week, right?

And what signals a man’s hibernating greatness more than his willingness to mask his identity with a playoff beard, am I right?

We could discuss Henry’s recovery, the symbolism of Affenlight’s death, Owen’s eulogy, or the metaphor that is the last scene, but who wants to do that when you can discuss playoff beards? And that’s why chapter seventy-four is where it’s at.

The summer after I graduated high school I quit shaving, thought it made me look like part of some long forgotten counterculture, so I totally understand Schwartz’s observation that “If he was the Ahab of this operation, this tournament the target of his mania, then they were Fedallah’s crew” (454), because the growing of a beard isn’t just about a denial of self–it’s about an occult belief in the mission at hand, a mission that can only be accomplished by a band of brothers. And the beard signifies that one is willing to pay their dues, to the brotherhood, to the mission, to the Captain, to the ‘ship.

But beards aren’t just about buying in, they’re also a sign of mourning. I’ve grown beards out of laziness, deploring the work I have to do. I’ve grown beards over ex-girlfriends, aching over all those lost moments. I’ve grown beards when the AP test approaches in May, agonizing over whether or not I’ve properly prepared my students. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve grown a lot of beards, and while I wanted to celebrate how well Harbach captures the many meanings behind growing a beard, chapter seventy-four made me incredibly sad, filling me with an intense sense of mourning for one Henry Skrimshander.

While his teammates closed in on their goal of winning a championship, I felt forced by Harbach’s allusions, both explicit and implicit, to ponder that chapter inMoby Dick when all the sailors gather in a church whose walls are marked by remembrances to the dead, those men lost at sea, their whaling ships swallowed up by the eerie depths, and there it was, on page 453, Henry’s plaque on the church wall: “once you healed the Henry gap you had no place for Henry.” A team can’t dwell on who is not present. A team must go with the men they have, and at this point in the narrative, I was sad for Henry no matter what happiness might be waiting for him later on in the book, or even after the book.

And then I got sadder, because Henry made me think of the 2004 Nomar Garciaparra, a very good shortstop who missed out on playoff beards, a World Series, and champagne. Is there anything like Nomar’s sadness? Have you ever accomplished something that felt incomplete? Has a group of people ever been better off without you? Have you ever had to grow a beard alone, and if so, how did you know when to cut it?

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