I’m a confused young man. I finished a novel that I believed I’d really like. The Art of Fielding is not a brand new book – it was published in the fall of last year – but conventional wisdom finally convinced me to pick it up. Before its release, it was critically acclaimed. The reviews described a splendid piece of storytelling and thoughtful dialogue, like Frank Darabont consulted on it. The Paper of Record put it on its “Best Books of 2011” list. I was informed I’d enjoy reading The Art of Fielding because it was a great story with an intriguing baseball subplot. I was told I’d like Fielding because it is set on and around the campus of a small liberal arts college – a Division III school – much like the college I attended. Friends and co-workers told me they cherished it, really enjoyed losing themselves in the story. “You don’t have to love baseball to love this book. It’s not just a baseball book,” I was told, over and over again. Fielding was supposed to move me because of the depth of the characters and the descriptive and good-natured writing of Chad Harbach – the first novel of a writer destined for greatness. But instead of a generational novel, Fielding reminded me of the greatest situational comedy of all time: remember the “Seinfeld” episode when Elaine saw “The English Patient” and despised it even as all her friends, colleagues and the critics fell in love with it? I feel like Elaine right now, and Fielding is my “The English Patient.”
“Why is everyone talking about The English Patient…God, that movie stunk!” – Elaine Benes
It is a baseball book, and yet it isn’t. Here’s what I mean: anyone reading this book who is knowledgeable about baseball will question Harbach’s understanding of the game, and anyone not attuned to America’s fading pastime will, undoubtedly, continue to skip the games and saber metric analysis afterward.
Here’s an example of baseball jargon in Fielding:
“Izz Izz Izz…[W]hat izz what wuzz will be!”
“Let’s go, vendejos! Let’s go!”
“We ain’t letting these vatos walk into our house and take our shit! No sir!”
“Q Q Q!”
“Somebody woke up the Q!”
“Somebody woke up Henry!”
“Somebody brought back the Buddha!”
“Buddha Buddha Buddha!”
“O O O!”
“O O O!”
I played baseball for many years growing up. Little league, Pony league, Bronco league, American Legion, High School, and so on. I was steeped in baseball and baseball culture for many summers, many years. The nonsensical garbage that Harbach passes off as trash-talking – baseball jargon – is utterly embarrassing. His dialogue now joins the pantheon of pathetic sports moments in popular culture along with Ed Norton’s dunk in “American History X.” When I read dialogue like what is above I was confused, thought I must have missed something. I didn’t.
And I can only imagine what non-baseball people thought reading it: people who play baseball talk this way? Do college baseball players get drunk before games? Is baseball dumber than I thought?
I could pick out a dozen more pieces of dialogue or scenes from Fielding that miss the mark, but just read Astonishingly Awful by some guy who had to write down his personal thoughts about Fielding at amazon.com. That should suffice.
“No. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. It’s too long.” – Elaine Benes
Fielding is 512 pages of under-developed, unsophisticated character development surrounded by laughable and outlandish scenarios that, for some unknown reason, the reader is supposed to understand, or consider, or empathize with. For instance, take the two main characters of Fielding: Henry Skrimshander, a dedicated and talented shortstop obsessed with baseball and bettering himself on the diamond, and Mike Schwartz, a hard-hitting, hard-drinking catcher whose dedication to his craft, his teammates and his school has created a magnetism no one can ignore.
When the two meet at the beginning of the book, Henry is awestruck by Schwartz’ aura: sheer manliness, a no-nonsense-let’s-get-to-work individual with unique leadership qualities. The two forge a bond, create an unbreakable friendship and begin to transform a baseball program.
The entire relationship-arch is utter nonsense.
At no point does Harbach make Schwartz into anything other than a borderline-fat, overly-critical miserable son-of-a-bitch with bad knees and a peculiar sense of self. There is nothing endearing about Schwartz. The reader doesn’t root for him at any point. He is the anti-protagonist and entirely forgettable. Then there’s Henry: a young man who miraculously develops into an outstanding collegiate hitter even though there is literally nothing in his past to suggest that Henry ever hit for a high average or power in his baseball life. He’s a rudderless ship who – for unexplained reasons – finds a captain in Schwartz who nurses him to life and changes his fortunes – only to watch those fortunes disappear in a terrifically stupid way.
Henry and Schwartz create the most asinine and fruitless partnership in recent published history.
It gets worse from there. Meet the college’s president Guert Affenlight who rose to prominence via his book, “The Sperm Squeezers.” (Don’t ask.) He’s an affable, well-read, thoughtful college president who bizarrely and inexplicably puts his career in danger by careening into a thoughtless – and totally unconvincing – love affair with an undergraduate and player on the baseball team, Owen. Owen turns out to be Henry’s roommate and although the reader is told over and over again he’s a talented baseball player, he spends most games reading books in the dugout – the kind of ridiculous and superficial add-on that has no basis in reality, though Harbach – weirdly – insists it does.
Then Harbach brings Pella Affenlight into the story – Guert’s wayward and estranged daughter – who, as far as I could tell, is little more than an unscrupulous whore intent on making bizarre and thoughtless – yet, completely unimportant – decisions.
Other bit players litter the book but none of them matter. A couple different times Harbach brings Henry’s sister into the fray. In one scene she gets drunk and makes out with some guy at a bar. I don’t remember any of the names involved, and I never needed to. There are dozens of long passages like that, including the debauched and criminally-thoughtless ending.
“How can you not like that movie?” – friend of Elaine Benes
“How ‘bout, it sucked?” – Elaine Benes
Conventional wisdom told me the Miami Heat were a prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title. Conventional wisdom convinced me Dicks cheeseburgers taste good. The iphone is a useful tool worth investing in, conventional wisdom told me. George Clooney in “The Descendents” = a noteworthy and conventionally solid performance. Conventional wisdom was right in each and every case. I listen to conventional wisdom because it’s correct, mostly. The Art of Fielding punched conventional wisdom in the marbles. It’s a dumb book with dumb characters and I wish I didn’t read it.
If the book is some kind of allegory and I’m missing the central themes, I’m sorry. I doubt it, though. I am beginning to believe the praise for Fielding is part of a grand conspiracy to trick otherwise intelligent people to glowingly marvel at slapped together novels in order to give publishers – like Little, Brown and Co., the publisher of Fielding – a push into a previously untapped segment of potential novel readers with cheaply written and easily reproduced stories, like James Patterson’s book factory. I don’t know. But I am a little confused.