Chad Harbach’s debut is a big, fun novel about baseball and the growing up we do in college. At its core is a buddy novel between Henry Skrimshander, star shortstop, and his mentor Schwartz, captain of the baseball team at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin.
In the opening, Schwartz recruits Henry and takes him under his wing so that three years later, the boys are best friends, the team is having a championship season, and scouts are considering Henry for the big leagues. Of course, trouble ensues as the story opens up to focus on the college president, Guert Affenlight, his daughter, and Henry’s gay roommate.
With its sprawling cast of characters and 500+ pages, the novel has been marketed as the next Great American Novel, and perhaps no recent novel save Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was as highly anticipated. Last October, Vanity Fair ran a long piece about Harbach’s path to publication, which involved 10 years of copyediting in New York and keeping the bill collectors at bay, followed by a half-million dollar advance, editing by the guy who edited Hemingway’s posthumous works, and global fame and fortune.
Harbach himself wrote a telling essay for Slate, “MFA vs. NYC,” which set off a firestorm among at least the MFA crowd of writers. In the essay, Harbach argued that there are two distinct literary cultures in America today: the MFA culture, which centers around the workshop, emphasizes the high-brow short story, and trains future writing instructors; and the New York City culture, which centers around publishing parties, emphasizes the middlebrow novel, and aims for fame and fortune.
No reductionist argument is completely fair to either side, but it’s hard to consider Harbach’s novel without also considering the system surrounding its publication. I think he sees himself in the NYC culture, and his novel definitely appeals to the wide middle—almost to a fault.
While I enjoyed reading it, and while the characters feel real and fully developed, it doesn’t have the larger stakes that a novel like Freedom has. Whereas the War on Terror and the Bush administration’s appropriation of the word “freedom” underlie Franzen’s latest novel, the closest Harbach gets to cultural commentary is two players arguing in the locker room: “Israel!” “Palestine!” “Israel!” “Palestine!”
This isn’t to say the book needed to be more political, just that it lacked a kind of breadth I found in the Franzen. The Art of Fielding has more in common with Michael Chabon’s exuberant yet cloistered first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—a good book (especially for an English major) but maybe not the Great American Novel reviewers would have you believe. (Whether the Great American Novel is still possible, or ever existed to begin with, is a different discussion for a different day.)