Archive for the 'Reading Club' Category

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding: The Final Chapters

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

There are many criteria we can use to judge a novel: our emotional investment in the characters, the ferocity of the drama, our remembrances of the book weeks, months, years later. Somehow each novel determines its own criteria. The two criteria that TAF will be judged by are its efficacy in making the reader want to learn what happens next (aka page-turnability, aka unputdownableness) and its total avoidance of literal exhumations.

You win some, you lose some.

It’s interesting (perhaps), there’s actually a literary term for a scenario in which, say, the protagonists of a novel exhume a body and the act is treated as smelly and frustrating but not especially more upsetting than a standard (first time around) funeral. That term, of course: batshit crazy.

Do we have to accept this batshit crazy ending literally? I argue the following is at least as reasonable: Henry never leaves the psych ward (ever), he never gets drafted by the Cardinals (even in his delusions Starblind bests him), he never fixes things with Schwartz (it would take a seriously damaged mind to imagine that this group would repair their friendship with an act of body snatching and reburial at sea on the last day that they are all on campus together). In short, chapters 77 and 79-82 take place entirely in Henry’s mind.

Is what I’m suggesting any more unrealistic than the idea that Owen (of all the characters!) would enlist a friend who recently finished a stint under psychiatric care to help exhume the body of his months-dead lover?

(If there’s some way to include the entire final game — and Henry’s inexplicable decision not to coach first base in the final inning, seemingly quitting on the team once again — into my psychosis theory, I’m all for it. I couldn’t get that to work.)

Good book, bonkers ending.

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?

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

The end of this book affected me in ways I really didn’t expect. I read it in a marathon binge session, guiltily hoping for Henry’s glorious Hollywood return and salvation, but feeling like I’d be better off with a more “real” ending – the same way you hope for ice cream in the freezer when you’re done with dinner, but when there is none and you’re forced to eat fruit, you console yourself by feeling virtuous.

But in reality, the book gave us both, and they ultimately detracted from each other. Henry’s frenzied and desperate heroics seemed like an extension of his depression, of the idea of his own meaninglessness. He won the game, but by the end of the book, we find out he’s been back in South Dakota, working at the Piggly Wiggly – it didn’t mean what we wanted it to mean.

Still, it may have given him enough of a taste of his own self-worth to start him on the road to recovery. So while the book leaves us with the knowledge that Henry is not at all what he once was, we also have the slim hope that he can make it back. For his own reasons this time, in whatever role he chooses, and better – more whole – in some way.

Henry, you are skilled. We exhort you.

P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbach(Author’s Note: this article has nothing to do with Game 6 of the World Series.  For that, I apologize.)

Right around the time our reading club got underway, I began my tenure at a local high school as a student teacher.  I adore academia, even if my university doesn’t quite compare to the Midwestern charm of Westish.  The layout is utilitarian, the grounds Spartan.  We have no lakes, president-filled or otherwise.

I was warned about the demands of student teaching, and these warnings were apt.  I haven’t watched a single pitch of playoff baseball this season.  Essentially, The Art of Fielding has been my postseason, and without it, my sense of alienation would be nearly palpable.  Stacks of textbooks on education theory and articles on critical literacy have replaced the game for me, and my head has been swimming with conceptual theories.  It was only inevitable that these ideas would bleed into the novel itself, as we headed toward the novel’s denouement.

In a conversation Eric mentioned the uselessness of the Harpooners coaching staff, especially the well-meaning, ineffective Coach Cox.  The man reminds me of an older, mellower portrayal of Jim Bouton’s Joe Schultz, a study in the virtues that are respected in baseball and are useless in everyday life.  Cox is helpless before Owen’s hospitalization, Schwartz’s fiery leadership, and Henry’s downfall.  He’s ceremonial, a reminder that most managers receive far more than they deserve in terms of pay and accolades.  The students change with every passing year, but Cox is always there, always the same, always losing.

What Harbach illustrates is that fielding and baseball really are an art, rather than a craft.  One’s ability is innate.  Owen puts down his novel, walks into the batting cage and sprays line drives.  Henry pirouettes effortlessly, thoughtlessly.  Strong coaching can maximize potential, add endurance and strength through countless hours of training.  But that potential is finite and predetermined.  For a teacher, it’s a troubling concept.

So as the book wound down, and I prepared to bid baseball adieu for another winter, I found my sentimentality waxing with the somber funeral march/row.  Soaked with alcohol, Freud’s solution for the masses, the gang finds itself on the brink of inexorable change, and I too found myself pausing between page turns, hoping to hold it back.

So as Schwartz takes up the mantle of teaching, and walks out to the familiar field to hit ground balls to his familiar friend, I finally identified with him.  This is what teaching is like, I thought.  Maybe Schwartz can make a difference, fix Henry and blend as gracefully into Westish as Affenlight had.  Maybe something can be taught, and that not everyone has to repeat every last mistake in life.  I hope that last throw found its way to the shovel.

P&P Reading Club: Ted Walker on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

the art of fielding by chad harbach

For most of this book, Henry Skrimshander was the quiet fulcrum around which a group of vibrant characters wheeled, projecting onto his country frame their anxieties and insecurities. Henry, for his part, played the wall. Speaking little, affecting nothing, his presence was like a wall painted white: only with a blemish, a fierce and irrational smear, did it appear at all. Henry, as he walked off of the field when his throwing arm rebelled entirely, only finally realized this limited value to those around him. Unable to express his needs, especially to the friend he needed most, Henry pursued a philosophy of negation. If his value was as a blank wall, he would very literally erase himself from being. No food, no coffee, no Henry. How he managed not to allow himself to sink to the bottom of the lake in a 30-pound vest is beyond me.

Henry’s depressed turn caught me off guard, I will admit. He seemed incapable of anything but recovery, or at least some kind of good cheer. Even as he handed the ball off to the pitcher, I didn’t sense sadness from him, but acceptance. He could have recommitted himself to the studies that seemed less than irrelevant to him, or he could have pursued a decent romantic relationship. When a path becomes blocked, depression isn’t the only alternative route.

In Pella, Henry found a fascinating bed fellow. Perhaps his acute sorrow appealed to her. She plays the mother and the lover in a gracefully uncomplicated triangle. The men in her life all reflect a certain model of stability, whether as the confident jock, the confident scholar-president, the pompous West Coaster, or the solidly blank white wall.

I little expected to care about the result of an actual baseball game as this little universe hurtles into its own future. But here we are and I can’t wait to see where Henry falls in relation to the fate of his team, the understated but brilliant Harpooners, who will play on live national TV in this brilliant alternate reality in which Division III baseball games play, even if it is on cable.

P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53– 72

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 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?

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53- 72

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

Well, that certainly got plotty, didn’t it? Maybe I skipped over the warnings but I hadn’t been concerned that Guert was putting his job on the line with his affair. The book successfully encouraged me to focus my concern on Owen’s eventual rejection of Guert. This development seemed to appear out of nowhere (dean ex machina?) but I loved the way this turn of events played off the unending and seemingly inconsequential talk of climate change. (Inconsequential to the novel, not — you know — the world.) In hindsight, I realize Owen’s solar-power pillow talk was actually quite strange and I would love it if Guert’s fleeting paranoid idea that Owen may be sleeping with him simply to make Westish carbon-neutral turned out to be true.

While Guert has the Skrimshanders to thank for the unraveling of his life’s work, Henry has both Affenflights to thank for avoiding fates such as ramen soup and shallow water drowning. I’m curious to see what’s driving Guert, at this dark moment, to send Henry to Nationals.

A question for everyone else: did I miss some legitimate reason for Schwartz to turn down the assistant athletic director job? I understand that we’re supposed to believe that he’s too stubborn or single-minded to accept this perfect gap-year opportunity … but is anyone buying that?

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

Everything seems finally to be coming to a head in the novel. Relationships are breaking down and forcing the characters to figure out their own lives, instead of using each other to fill the gaps. Probably the most striking loss, to me, was Henry’s loss of baseball. Every other character has something else to chase, for good or ill, but most importantly, for themselves: Schwartz wants the championship. Pella wants a normal, adult life. Affenlight wants a normal, adult life (an unexpected parallel between father and daughter that, to be honest, I only just caught on to as I was writing this).

But Henry has nothing else to want, and frankly, I’m not even sure he’s capable of wanting anything else. Even his relationship – insofar as you can call that weird one-sided dependency a relationship – with Pella is a sort of an aimless, reflexive action. And here’s where things got difficult for me.

Harbach has illustrated depression extremely convincingly in these pages. As someone who has been where Henry is, it was an exceedingly uncomfortable read for me. And it makes me wonder whether the loss of baseball is really what’s tormenting Henry, or whether there’s been something pathological about him all along. I object to the tendency society as a whole seems to have for diagnosing from a distance and with limited information. But Henry is fictional, so with that caveat in place, I’ll say that his reaction to walking away from baseball throws the observations I’ve made so far – about the essential emptiness of his character – into a wholly different light. What do you think: is Henry grieving normally? Or was he, by pursuing baseball so single-mindedly, staving off this feeling all along?

P&P Reading Club: Pete Beatty on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbach Pete Beatty is a future boss at The Classical and P&P’s resident Jim Thome scholar.

“Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.”–Poetics

“Is Ahab, Ahab?”–Moby-Dick, Ch 132

As Henry and Schwartz and the fifth business folks eddy toward Act V, things have taken a not-unwelcome turn toward the predictable. The story hangs on the national championship, even if the Skrimmer’s defective wing and Americanitis aren’t responding to treatment, not even the alienated love of the strangely static Pella. Guert’s desperate, curious love for Owen has brough his  administration down, but home ownership and anchor pets may bring a happy tomorrow. The lines of the plot are largely drawn, but what we’re left with is little more than a skeletal sketch, flawlessly styled but a bit transparent.

The burden of making this book flesh has fallen on character, as a stock-in-trade, in the form of Henry and Mike. Both boys/men are increasingly damaged; Schwartz especially:

All he could have today was … the knowledge that there’d be at least two more games–because nationals were double-elimination–before he had to face his fucked up life … He’d never found anything inside himself that was really good and pure, that wasn’t double edged, that couldn’t just as easily become its opposite.

Henry, chapters earlier, expresses the same essential frailty in a goofier way:

Sometime in elementary school his class had read Anne Frank’s diary, and Henry, terribly alarmed, asked why Anne hadn’t simply pretended not to be Jewish. The way Peter escaped from the Romans by pretending not to be a Christian. Peter got in trouble for that in the Biblbe, but if you put it in the context of poor Anne, who was not only real but a kid, didn’t it make sense? What difference did it make what religion you were, if you were dead?

The Art of Fielding is largely powered by character. Our rooting interests in Henry and Schwartz and Pella, and even lesser lights like Starblind and Chef Spirodocus and Contango the dog, are what bind us to the work. The universe of Westish, much like the Seven Kingdoms of George R.R. Martin (and notably unlike the deck of the Pequod) is only engaging insofar as we thrill to the doings of our heroes. While Henry and Schwartz are brilliantly realized and complex, they’re not given much in the way of a plot to interact with. Aristote might disagree with this sentiment, but I don’t particularly mind. I can see where this novel is headed, and in fact I might have guessed it–but knowing a game is scheduled for nine innings doesn’t detract from the tragicomedy. Or is this comedy? Or dramedy?

My last question before the final installment: Henry’s paralysis versus Schwartz’s self-hatred: I think I’m with Henry. Which is weird, because I am totally a Schwartzian to this point. Anybody else feeling their sympathies drift Skrimward?

P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbachI first read Siddhartha in my mid-twenties, the perfect time.  I had performed all the necessary rites: earned my useless liberal arts degree, failing classes and writing awful songs for the guitar.  I had lived overseas and returned; I found a low-paying professional job and wore ties.  I joined a bar-league softball team.  I joined a book club.

I read Siddhartha and discovered that I hadn’t been wasting my life; I’d just been honing myself, voyaging unknowingly on a lifelong journey, often in circles but inevitably forward.  I was hunting for my Kamala, throwing dice and laughing.  Naturally, I ate this up.  I brought my notes to the book club and drank other people’s merlot, mostly to insert pauses in my own conversations.

What I found so enthralling was the book’s sense of velocity, its unending pace toward wisdom or destitution or both.  Everything to me was progress, each day a matter of new wisdom and new experience.  For the athlete, particularly the baseball player, this is not so.  By the time they gain sufficient wisdom, a workable change-up or plate discipline and strength, they have already begun to die.  Their every effort must be design to combat this; every misplayed ball, every lazy workout bends a man further from perfection.

In The Art of Fielding, Schwartz uses a machinery metaphor to explain the baseball player, rendering him soulless.  There is no sudden beauty, no art, only reliability.  Henry, the ideal ballplayer, never deviates, never rests.  Finally Henry-the-Machine breaks down and baptizes himself in the lake, no longer able to live among the world without belonging to it.  One of Harbach’s themes is the shunning of the effects of time: Affenlight hiding from old age, Schwartz adulthood, Henry perfection.  The following chapters see Henry efface himself, tear down the temple he has built to himself and baseball, the muscles and sinew eroding.  Each day he sleeps through, each decimal of body fat raised, feels like a tragedy.

By the end of Chapter 72 we and Henry have reached a crossroads: where will Harbach take him from here?  Siddhartha is dragged from the river by his friend Govinda and finds enlightenment in his emptiness.  Will Henry find his own, and what form will it take?  Will it be in baseball, a return to the simple joy of the game Aparicio hated to leave?  Or will it require the casting off of baseball, a return to the idyllic pasture of the Midwest?

I’m in my thirties now, still wandering in circles.  I’m still reading Siddhartha, still pontificating in book groups.  It’s no coincidence.  I don’t have the sort of character, the capacity to achieve Henry’s level of greatness, nor his level of misery.  I’m not driven enough, not myopic enough to concentrate on a single task, put all my chips on one number.  Perhaps it’s cowardice.  But I can’t help but disagree when Henry claims that “the only life worth living is the unfree life”, because he doesn’t understand freedom.  He sees the cigarettes and women and knowledge as freedom, or an attempt at it, when all they are is another reach for control over one’s life.

Freedom is what we see in Owen, in name the Buddha, in reality opportunistic hedonism made practical.  Owen needs nothing and takes what’s available.  It’s not life free of pain, as Schwartz hopes for, nor life ignorant of it; it’s life free of the fear of pain.   It’s illicit merlot.  It’s Aparicio’s vision of the game, a samurai code that cannot be broken because it is continually being remade.  Sometimes, it’s a double-header at shortstop, hoping each ball is hit to you, another chance to do something brilliant.