If you read publishing industry news, you might have heard of a book called The Art of Fielding, when Little Brown gave Chad Harbach—who didn’t have a paying job at the time—650 fucking thousand dollars for it. The average advance given to authors these days is a bag of oranges and a bus ticket, so this made a bunch of bookish types jealous, but reassured that maybe someday a publisher will give them a big advance for their first novel too. (Poets are still fucked.)
Probably to justify their investment, Little Brown publicized the hell out of the thing. To the extent that they even sent a review copy to me, someone who doesn’t normally review books. The PR blitz resulted in favorable articles in a spectrum of publications that included the New Yorker, the AV Club, and USA Today, the last two of which resorted to a bunch of sports metaphors. All that ink paid off: As I write this, The Art of Fielding is at number 34 on the Amazon best-seller list, just above The 17 Day Diet: A Doctor’s Plan Designed for Rapid Results. When your 500-page debut novel is outselling diet books, you know you’ve written a hit.
So what’s inside the cover? The plot concerns this kid named Henry Skrimshander, an almost unbelievably gifted shortstop who goes off to a made-up Midwestern liberal arts college where he interacts with a bunch of characters, nearly all of whom are undergoing some sort of coming-of-age crisis or realizing that they’ve sort of screwed their lives up. The centerpiece of the novel is this massive, existential-question-raising slump that Henry falls into, but he fades into the background for long stretches so we can focus on the other characters and their hopes, fears, sex lives, etc.
Harbach is really good at writing clean, often clever sentences and arranging them next to each other so your eye travels easily over the text. “It’s a real page-turner!” you might say, if you said things like that. He’s a good enough writer that he can get away with some clichés, like undergrad athletes being slobs, or an architect being a snobby asshole, or even a whole underdogs-marching-to-the-championship-game-and-it-all-comes-down-to-the-final-at-bat subplot without any of it coming off as hacky. He gets inevitably compared to Jonathan “Motherfucking American Novelist” Franzen, because both of them write slightly comic realist novels that feel shorter than they are. Thankfully, Harbach isn’t trying to boldly take on THE WAY WE ALL LIVE NOW like Franzen did in his last book (yech).
So it’s a perfectly competent novel but it’s also (as the New Yorker said) a “work of escapism,” which is an uptown way of calling it fluff. Maybe it’s more highbrow than fluff featuring spies or sexy lawyers, but that just makes it middlebrow fluff. It doesn’t talk down to you, but it doesn’t challenge or shock you. I smiled for most of the time I read it, but I don’t think I laughed out loud once.
The thing is, these upper-middle-class characters in this upper-middle-class book have upper-middle-class problems that never feel especially urgent. Will they figure out who loves whom in what way and figure out what to do with their lives and get over their individual neuroses? Well—probably. The writers who created great works about the problems of the well-to-do (Cheever and Fitzgerald, for instance) made you feel that the rich’s money and security didn’t stop them from being miserable and trapped; Harbach’s characters are relatively unthreatened. They’re comic, not tragic. Henry’s the most interesting, most haunted figure in the book, the one that doesn’t fit in, and the rare bits where we get inside his head are the best bits:
Words were tainted somehow—or no, he was tainted somehow, damaged, incomplete, because he didn’t know how to use words to say anything better than “Hi” or “I’m hungry” or “I’m not.”
I have the vague sense that I wish Harbach had been more ambitious at the risk of being less accessible or readable, but I’m sure if he had he wouldn’t have been given that hunk of money and books wouldn’t have been written about the publishing of the book. It’s sort of like a stand-up double that the hitter doesn’t try to stretch into a triple, which isn’t the most exciting play in baseball.