Book Quote:

“Baseball was an art but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It did not matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. […] What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (SEP 7, 2011)

Set in the world of college baseball, this is a book about aspiration, failure, and recovery. There are many good things in it, both about baseball and college, but not enough of them for me to recommend the novel wholeheartedly. Harbach captures the baseball world (as in the quotation above) with convincing authenticity; more of this in a moment. He also has some spot-on observations of academe, as in this remark by an English Professor opening a class:

“In lieu of our usual business, I hope you’ll be so indulgent as to listen with me to a recording of the dear dead anti-Semite Thomas Stearns Eliot reading aloud his longish poemlike creation THE WASTELAND, and meanwhile to meditate on the ways in which modernism rejects, retains, or possibly even transforms the traditional elements of orality we’ve been discussing throughout the semester.”

Nice! The shadow of English Departments, here and elsewhere, hangs over the book throughout, though generally lightly. Guert Affenlight, the President of Westish College, is a former football jock from the same college who has built an entire career on a chance discovery of notes made by Herman Melville for a lecture at the college late in his life, and parlayed this into a seminal book on 19th-century literature and academic stardom at Harvard. He is a likeable character, and the only significant non-student in the novel. In one of his smaller epiphanies, he reflects on the downside of literature: “It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your own critical faculties.” Nice again, but ouch! As a reader myself looking in the mirror, this is a little too true. But turn it around: does Harbach think it permissible to treat fictional characters as cadavers for his intellectual pleasure? He might have done well to glance into his own mirror too.

Three of the other major characters are students on the college baseball team. Henry Skrimshander is a phenom, a shortstop with the accuracy of a laser and grace of an angel. Mike Schwartz, as huge is Henry is light, is the team captain, the man who first spotted Henry and recruited him, and remains his personal coach, mentor, and guru throughout his student career. The third is Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate, brilliant, beautiful, and gay; he plays baseball almost as an afterthought, spending most of his time in the dugout reading until called in as a pinch-hitter. Add to these Guert Affenlight’s beautiful daughter Pella, in flight from an early marriage, who will become involved with each of the other three in different ways.

The crux of the story, as described in the excellent back-cover summary, comes during a crucial game in Henry’s junior year. Now the most famous player on the team and already being scouted by the major leagues, he makes a single disastrous throw, the first error of his college career. His world falls apart, and the lives of his friends with it. This is certainly a worthy theme for a novel, both literally as it applies to baseball, and as a parallel for life. Baseball players (whom I have observed only at a distance, like other fans) are indeed expected to be artists with the predictability of a machine, as Harbach says. The same is true of actors and musicians, the subjects of my professional work. And we surely have all come into contact with the devastating effect of failure that comes about, not through incompetence, but fear of success. With such a subject, and his obvious knowledge of the game, Harbach could have written a book that went as far beyond baseball as Joseph O’Neill in Netherland went beyond cricket.

So why didn’t he? Largely because of a certain frivolity that leads him to treat his characters as personal playthings rather than rounded human beings — the very thing that Guert Affenlight condemns in himself. There is a clue in many of the names: Westish itself; Chef Spirodocus; players called Loondorf, Arsch, and Quentin Quisp; and the title of Affenlight’s seminal (yes) book, The Sperm-Squeezers. Was the book intended as satire, I wondered? But the humor is not consistent. Harbach writes well for the most part, but now and again you see him reaching a little too hard, such as “his daughter ducked her beautiful port-colored head” and “As he twisted his combination lock in its casing, right left right, he could sense a gentle depression, like the hollow of a girl’s neck, each time he reached the right number.” Then there are the implausibilities, starting with Westish accepting Henry solely on the word of a sophomore, and ending with a sequence of bizarre events that serve no useful purpose other than to bring the novel to a close. But what finally sunk the book for me were the sexual relationships, none of which I could believe: a case of true love at first grope, the cliché of a tense young man getting (almost) cured by the simple fact of getting laid, and an entanglement central to the plot which no reader would accept in a straight context, but which we are asked to swallow simply because it is gay.

Harbach’s themes are valuable, but he will not succeed in making the most of them until he can create rounded characters and let himself be led by them.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0 from 900 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company (September 7, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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September 7, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, US Midwest

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