Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ball and Glove: a Love Story (from The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach)

I was tired, needed a jolt of coffee, and had an idle hour while my wife hopscotched up and down Reserve Street in Missoula, Montana, hitting craft and sewing-notions stores.  Normally, I'd be there with her, rendering my opinion on bolts of cloth and "mm-hmm"ing over a parade of buttons, garlands, and vintage hardware to be used on one of her furniture transformations.  But, like I said, I was drained and needed to be filled with caffeine.

While I was at it, why not fill myself with words as well?  So, I predictably headed for the nearest Barnes & Noble.

As I walked in, I had it in the back of my mind that I'd check out a novel which had been getting huge amounts of pre-publicity buzz from critics and early readers.

"One of those rare novels--like Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh or John Irving's The World According to Garp--that seems to appear out of nowhere and then dazzles and bewitches and inspires until you nearly lose your breath from the enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well."

"First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom."

"....a wise, warm-hearted, self-assured, and fiercely readable debut, which heralds the coming of a young American writer to watch."

Those blurbs come from James Patterson, Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Evison, respectively.  Unusual bedfellows, to be sure, but they and many others (including the hard-to-please Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times) have all snuggled up to The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  And now I, too, was settling in with the debut novel about a shortstop at a small college on the shore of Lake Michigan.  Before I reached page 10, the chatter of the Barnes & Noble Cafe had softened to a barely-there background hum and the latte at my elbow had gone cold.

By the time Jean came to pick me up at the bookstore, I'd already tapped through a series of screens on my Droid smartphone and ordered The Art of Fielding to be zapped onto my Kindle.  When I got home last night, I was ready for more of the galaxy of characters who inhabit the world of Westish College and the Harpooners baseball team.  I spent another hour on the couch, sunk deep into both the cushions and Harbach's book.

I'll have a proper review here at the blog sometime in the future, but for now I can tell you that the comparisons to Bernard Malamud's The Natural and John Irving's The World According to Garp are equally apt.  Harbach throws his words with an easy grace and wit, his fingers barely breaking a sweat as he makes the white-knuckle process of writing look effortless.

One of my favorite passages comes in the first chapter when Michael Schwartz, a catcher for the Westish Harpooners, first sees Henry Skrimshander on the field, playing for an opposing ball team.  Skrimshander's ease with the glove and ball stops Schwartz in his cleat-tracks and, despite the heat of the day, he hangs around after the game to watch the young phenom field some balls in practice with his coach.

      Now when the kid reached the worked-over dust that marked the shortstop’s spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn’t have had. He’d played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.
      Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
      The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.
      The coach hit balls harder and farther afield—up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
      After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid’s thoughts were—whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look—Schwartz couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.

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