If you're looking for an unbiased review, you can look elsewhere. I'm married to the author of this book. I read drafts of this at various stages and...moreIf you're looking for an unbiased review, you can look elsewhere. I'm married to the author of this book. I read drafts of this at various stages and since I know the author in the Biblical sense (hey now), I am completely incapable of giving an unbiased review. But if you're interested in hearing why I think this is such a tremendous novel and such a fun read, read on.
There are many "post-apocalyptic" books in existence, but what I love about California is that it feels very mid-apocalyptic. The apocalypse here is not that of the molten lava variety or the devastating plague nature, but rather the slow, inevitable decline that likely awaits us all. Lepucki doesn't dwell too much on the whys and hows of the world of California. We know that for the 99%, the world is a brutal place, one that only vaguely resembles our own. Those who can have fled the major cities--now riddled with violence and decay--either for the cloistered sanctuary of a "community," where life is a sort of clownish replica of the world we inhabit today, or to set out on their own in the wilderness.
Frida and Cal are two such pioneers, living alone in a hand-made shack. They grow what they can and kill what they can and try to make a go of it the way their ancestors likely did. One thought that recurred as I read a later draft of California is that Frida and Cal's existence is one logical conclusion of hipsterdom. Too hip for the city, they now live out a kind of fantasy life of burlap and denim, the ultimate farm-to-table life. Their world is small and fraught until Frida becomes pregnant and decides that they must set out to find other nearby settlements.
This is the story of a family, complete with all the politics, grudges, in-jokes, and tenderness that most of us will recognize as true. That it happens to take place during the end of our world makes it all the more compelling. Beautiful language abounds, as does mystery. Violence hangs over the book, but presents itself only in small bursts, little cataclysms.
I could go on and on about this book, but what I'm really looking forward to is discussing it with some other people. It's a book full of ideas and life. And I can't wait for all of you to read it.
* While the book wisely eschews most historical irony, there are a few fun Easter eggs. My favorite involves a certain contemporary author. Keep your eye out for that one.
* Some of my favorite sections of the book--those detailing life on the bizarro campus of Plank College--were cut from the book. It was the right decision, but man, do I miss those pages. I'm hoping Edan will make a little DVD-extras-type thing out of that section to satisfy my campus-novel lust.(less)
William H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matte...moreWilliam H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matter of his work. He writes for this reader, whoever he or she might be, probably never fully expecting to find such a creature. I am the ideal reader for The Art of Fielding. To wit, a Venn diagram:
I'm sure there are others out there, a secret brotherhood of ivy-loving, two-seamer fetishists, lurking in dank hallways dreaming about spring and middle relief. Perhaps that's why this book is so popular -- perhaps I'm not all that bizarre. It's comforting to think so, actually.
For a book that I was more or less put on this earth to read, The Art of Fielding took awhile to hook me. Partially, I felt that defensiveness that we all feel when someone tells us something is perfect for us, or so funny, or amazing. "Well, we'll see about that." I kept looking for the tiny flaws in the book, the places where my own knowledge of baseball surpassed Harbach's. And there were a few such moments -- it seems unlikely that a Venezuelan citizen like Aparicio Rodriguez would be a record holder at the NCAA level, for instance. A player of that lineage would likely have gone from a baseball academy to the minor leagues then on to the majors without ever setting foot in an Intro to American Lit class. But it's a small thing, and for the most part, Harbach clearly knows the game.
What tripped me up more was the tone of the book. It has a nostalgic mood, one that sometimes felt at odds with the book's humor or irony. As I noted early on, the novel felt like it took place in the 1950s but with iPhones. In a way, it reminded me of another great baseball novel, The Brothers K. But where that book took place in the 50s and 60s, The Art of Fielding happens, more or less, now. The result is a sort of unreality, the feeling that the book takes place in a world much like ours, but not ours at all.
Adding to this feeling are the sometimes outlandish names. There's Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish College, the location of most of the action in the book. His name is the first of many Melville allusions in the book (Guert Gansvoort was a commodore in the US Navy and a cousin of Herman Melville's, or so Google tells me). Henry Skrimshander (another Melville allusion). Adam Starblind, Craig Suitcase, Pella Affenlight, and on and on. Even Aparicio Rodriguez, an odd portmanteau of shortstops, seemed labored. It's hard naming characters, I imagine, and I appreciate a well-named one, like Le Carre's, but sometimes these felt a bit too interesting. I was happy whenever Mike Schwartz appeared on the page, simply for his sturdy workmanlike name.
And despite all of this, I loved this book. It started with Mike Schwartz, a character I wanted to know, wanted, at times, to be. It probably stems from my infatuation with athletes who hit their ceilings at the high school or college level. I'm talking about people who can play well and sometimes even dominate at a lower level but are not good enough to go pro (or on to college, depending). They're poetic creatures, these athletes, and Harbach has created a great one in Schwartz. He's a moral compass, an anchor for his otherwise somewhat light story, and the beating heart of this novel. Much like his name, he felt the most real of any of the characters in the book. He broke my heart.
Guert Affenlight, despite his unwieldy name, came to life, as well. My favorite chapter of the book is probably Affenlight's backstory, how he discovers the transcript of a rare Melville lecture that sets him on the path that would be his life. It reminded me a bit of Stoner, by John Williams, another great campus novel. Affenlight finds more love in his life than Bill Stoner, thank god, and when the novel begins, he's fallen for a boy named Owen Dunne, another baseball player, and Henry's roommate. I know that others have had trouble with Affenlight's plot, deeming it unrealistic, but I found it to be among the more moving parts of the book. I don't know how often men who've been straight their whole lives become gay, but I believed it of Affenlight. And his struggle to navigate his love not just for Owen and his daughter Pella but for Westish College, as well, was engaging throughout.
Schwartz recruits Henry Skrimshander, the greatest shortstop he's ever seen, to come play ball at Westish College, in Wisconsin. There, he molds Henry into a player good enough to do something nobody at Westish had ever dreamed of doing -- turning pro. Schwartz wills Henry to be better, cajoling him into lifting weights, running stadium steps, hitting endless BP. And it all pays off. Henry plays so well that he ties the great Aparicio Rodriguez's streak of errorless games, a great accomplishment for any shortstop. But then Henry hits his roommate and teammate Owen in the face with an errant throw -- the first of his career -- and everything spirals towards oblivion.
Putting aside the issues I had with the tone of the book (as well as the ending, which I'll let someone else decry), Harbach is a sensationally talented writer, and there are more than a few lovely passages. I loved this quote in particular: "The ability to throw a baseball was an alchemical thing, a superhero's secret power. You could never quite tell who possessed it."
I admired so much of the writing in this flawed but heartfelt book that I would recommend it to people who didn't know a thing about baseball. You don't need to know anything about the game to admire writing like this:
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer -- you didn't work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn't just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability...Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can't be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.
Good stuff, and consistently good throughout. As one of his own characters would say, "Chad Harbach, you are skilled. I exhort you."(less)
What to say about this book? It's one of the five best books I've ever read, and I think I've only met one person who considers it anything less than...moreWhat to say about this book? It's one of the five best books I've ever read, and I think I've only met one person who considers it anything less than one of the best books of the 20th Century. Is that enough to recommend it to you?
I also wrote about this book for The Millions last year. Everything I said then still stands. I can't wait to re-read this.(less)
Among the best books I've read. Funny as all hell, and exactly the sort of funny I like. This is one of the few books I've read multiple times. Every...moreAmong the best books I've read. Funny as all hell, and exactly the sort of funny I like. This is one of the few books I've read multiple times. Every few years I get the itch to read it again. (less)