Bryan 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 truth is sobering. The lie intoxicating. To get better, at some point, the truth is needed, and if I’m wrong in what I’m about to say, put me in my place.
Surrounded by land, Westish College and its bevy of depressed characters are still somehow connected to the water: there’s the Melville statue overlooking the lake, there’s Pella swimming her laps, there’s Schwartz rehabbing in the athletic center’s whirlpool, and then there’s Henry’s soup and bathtub routine. But Henry’s aquatic melancholy doesn’t begin in a bathroom. As far as I can tell, it begins in Chapter 54 when he swims out into the lake (most likely with Melville’s stone eyes watching him), wearing a flak jacket. It’s dangerous. It’s foolish. And it’s the most desperate act Henry makes, that is until he sleeps with Pella.
A lot is going on in Chapters 54 and 55. No doubt. Prior to these chapters Henry is a rather flat character, as many here have stated. He plays baseball. He lifts weights. He runs the stadium. He plays baseball. Everything is cyclical and, well, predictable. Then a gust of wind disrupts everything, Owen goes to the hospital, and Henry is introduced to the harshness of real life, like a baby forced to breathe air through its nose for the first time, and that’s what Henry is prior to this segment of the novel: a baby. He does what he’s told, as he’s told, not thinking, soaking up the wisdom of Aparicio and Schwartz tabula rasi. And when baseball fails to give him “The dream of every day the same” (345), where does Henry go for answers but back to the womb-like waters of Lake Michigan, reenacting the single time in everyone’s life when their being is entirely flawless, “[improving] little by little till the day it all [becomes] perfect” (345)? Everything after that is downhill, right? Mistakes, unmet potential, and sin.
Henry goes to the water because there’s something within him that must be cleansed, and when he comes out of the cool Lake Michigan waters, he gets down on all fours and drinks from a puddle “like an animal” (346), having washed away the complexities of his existence. Then he curls up in the sand–fetal style–and sleeps the night away, only to awake the next day, in Chapter 55, not with the mind of a child but contemplating “the longest speech of his academic career” (348), which happens to be about St. Peter, a man whose most famous act is one of denial (apparently, sainthood does not operate on baseball’s three strike rule), and what else is Henry trying to do in this part of the novel than deny the fallible traits that make him a human rather than a machine. Then this chapter that begins with his most complex thoughts on religion (which a young Henry appears to deny), free will, and even damnation ends with Henry’s hand being guided into the “icy blue” that guards Pella’s private parts (353). So when the baseball diamond fails to replicate the perfect potential of Henry’s in utero existence, he turns to Pella, the strongest representation of the feminine there is in the novel, but even this effort will fail to heal him, just like no amount of hours in a whirlpool can restore Schwartz’s joints, and Henry will spend the next several chapters, like a fish or a whale, in bathtubs full of water, slurping on warm soup as if it came to him out of an umbilical cord.
Here’s the thing, though, Henry knows his actions are “crazy” (346), that perfection is dull to the point of not existing, that he had to leave his mother’s womb, that playing baseball long enough will result in errors, that a person cannot tread water forever, that pretty much all moments of ejaculation are short lived, and that bathtubs have a drain for a reason, so where does Henry go from here? And how did Harbach make such a seemingly dull kid from South Dakota into whatever this character is now?