Now it would be fair to say that I like a campus novel. it would be equally fair to say that I am regularly disappointed with the reality of the novel I so eagerly anticipate. Tom Wolfe’s, I Am Charlotte Simmons (never really got off the starting blocks) and Donna Tartt’s, The Secret History ( promised so much but finished half way through) two cases in point.
I did enjoy the mentalist, Brett Eastern Ellis’, Rules of Attraction (am I just a sucker for punishment?). At the other end of the campus spectrum Jane Smiley’s satirical, Moo which, like The Art of Fielding, is set in America’s Mid-West in an imaginary university is a jolly good and thought provoking read. While her central character, Earl Butz, a pure white hog, is the American heartland’s answer to Moby Dick, Harbach invokes Melville’s giant white whale throughout this, his debut novel. Surnames (Skrimshander), Baseball teams (Harpooners), tattoos, tee-shirts, long lost essays and research works (The Sperm-Squeezers) all have at their heart the ‘greatest’ of American novels.
If chasing the American dream is the premise for this novel then Harbach succeeds in his ambition. The central characters are striving to better themselves (be it in sport, academia or relationships) and through talent, luck, tenacity, escape and death the majority do.
The narrative arc is traditional and the story ends as it begins, on the field of play. Baseball, quintessentially American, the chosen device and the protagonist has travelled from nobody through superhero to pretty regular guy with a rosy future.
Unlike Eugenides’ recently reviewed novel Reading Repository #1 – The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides the characters in The Art of Fielding are likeable and deserve empathy. I do think our protagonist Henry Skrimshander could have been developed way more and the only woman, Pella needs Harbach to get in touch with his true feminine side to become fully rounded but as the plot whips along I do wish them all well and want to know their fates.
My book group meets again on February 11th and it is my turn to host. As I outlined in Rules of Engagement it has fallen to me to read and choose the book. The event will not be at my house and I will not be providing a three course repast (again Rules of Engagement). Thankfully, because our pre-Christmas hostess did such an amazing Armenian job of hers we have crowned her Queen and abandoned the competition. For that is what it would have, no doubt, become.
However, ’twas I who championed the must pre-read the proposed to avoid, in the future, such nightmares as The Quincunx and Traveller of the Century so your truly has already come in for critical comment. I hadn’t read The Art of Fielding.
In my defence, I have wanted to for over a year, I have bought it for Mr Carmichael’s Christmas stocking because I have wanted to read it for over a year and my friend P……. says it’s good.
It is. Phew. So I’m happy and confident all will finish it, some will love it, some will like it and some will not. That, for me, is a perfect book for a reading group.
There’s the campus genre, there’s sport (but not too much), there’s love and sex of all kinds and overall there’s the condition of being human.
Mr Carmichael is already on Chapter Ten so Mr Harbach is doing something right.
I am currently reading Gaudí by Gijs van Hensbergen in preparation for my Barcelona weekend, Take Three Girls: Barcelona (DP Challenge), so I can bore my friends, in sober moments, with interesting facts.