Getting the ball rolling

By this time last year, the world of contemporary fiction had me dizzy with a one-two whammo of love and envy. Shit was tight. I wouldn’t pay $50 to press my breasts against the stage while my favorite band played. I’d have paid $50 times 50 to scrape gum off Jennifer Egan’s shoes or observe Gary Shtyngart with his lips wrapped around a bottle of top-shelf vodka. And then there was Freedom and then there was House of Tomorrow. Panic ensued: Which one did I want denting my cheek when I went to sleep? Would Hilary Thayer Hamann be my little spoon?

This year has been a dud. I say that as of right this second. There is a lot of promise in that yet-to-be-released queue. But if someone dangled me by the ankles over a body of water teeming with water snakes and said: “Give me your Top 10 of 2011 or you’re going down, kisser to forked-tongue-kisser!” I’d end up with a face full of belt material.

I’d have my number one, though. Reading it felt like a sigh. Finally something I can strap to this dismal year to keep it afloat. Thanks, Chad Harbach.

The Art of Fielding, Harbach’s debut novel, has that Irving-collegiate chill to it, though it’s coming off the Great Lakes rather than an East Coast bay.

The story is built around Henry, a kid from small-town South Dakota with no life plans, but who is pure poetry at shortstop. He’s complicated in his lack of complications. For more than 500 pages, little else about him will be revealed. Baseball genius, reads and re-reads his idol’s book The Art of Fielding. No favorite foods, no lust, no introspection, no humor. Just baseball and what it takes to get better at baseball and what happens when he hits a terrific and ill-timed slump.

Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz while playing summer ball. This lumbering loaf of an athlete, hopped up on the pain pills it requires to play Division III football and baseball, sees Henry’s potential and takes action. He gives Henry the hard sell, sends for his high school transcripts, goes suave on Henry’s doubting father and gets the kid enrolled at Westich College. Schwartz is a dynamo. A big body who makes things happen for other people, yet cannot kick the pills, get into an upper tier law school or finish his thesis.

The university’s president Guert Affenlight has taken a shine to Henry’s super-cultured, eco friendly, gay roommate Owen. The 60-year-old, who looks 50, falls hard in his only homosexual crush. Also: his daughter Pella has left her husband in California and is auditing classes. She’s whipped the Westich boys into a froth, but it’s Schwartz who lands her.

Then, disaster. When agents and scouts start dangling dollar signs in front of him, Henry makes a bad throw, the first presumably of his life, and everything goes haywire. He starts thinking too hard, questioning speed and aim, pausing too long and making the first baseman work way too hard. This, in turn, throws off everyone around him.

This buzz-book has gotten enough chatter that it’s impossible to not give it an extra finicky read. So you secured a $650,000 advance, eh Mr. Harbach? Big numbers for a rookie, huh? Well I don’t like the pacing of the first 50 pages! A reader might think to herself. Then that same reader might re-evaluate the critique after a bit of self-analysis: It’s not so much that Henry jumps grades within a single paragraph. It’s that he is so fun to read about that you don’t want to grow up too fast.

The novel is proof that fiction doesn’t have to start itself on fire. The story isn’t surprising or twisting or heart wrenching or cruel. It’s easy. Sometimes its predictable, but sometimes it dekes left and goes right. Hot damn if I didn’t love every single character — enough at one point to want to order 50 pizzas to Harbach’s house to get back at him for what I thought he was going to do to one of them.

Now. I need to find nine more books that sing before that ball drops.

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