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The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

Little, Brown and Company, September 7, 2011

The novel is a pleasure to read, but it ain’t no Moby-Dick. Not that I’d know. I’ve never cracked Melville’s classic, which flounders on my reading list. Perhaps I’ll get to Ishmael and Ahab over the Christmas holidays. Or, maybe I’ll keep proclaiming for another fifteen years—about how long it’s been since I received the whale saga as a holiday gift—that I plan on sitting down with the seafaring odyssey.

No disrespect, Mom. I appreciate the present. I do. I just keep getting sidetracked by the Internet and movies and grocery shopping and time at the gym and watching 24-hour cable TV news and, and, and.

And then a novel like this one pops up, creating even more distraction.

Henry shrugged. “There’s always somebody better.”

“That’s not what Mike says. He says you’re the top—what is it, shortstop?—in the entire country.”

Henry thought about it for a moment. “It doesn’t feel like much,” he said. “You really only notice when you screw up.”

The excuses never end.

Moby-Dick merits recognition for a couple reasons but especially because it figures prominently in Chad Harbach’s assured debut. I’m positive that references shot over my head with the trajectory of a launched harpoon off the Pequod. At least the obvious allusions hit their target, causing pause for thought. Specifically, they impelled a constant reminder of a gaping hole in my literary breadth. The subtext of each overt connotation brought to light a single distressing theme: To a fault, I have chased the next hot new thing over the tried-and-true.

You could say that young people were desired because they had smooth bodies and excellent reproductive chances, but you’d mostly be missing the point. There was something much sadder in it than that. Something like constant regret, the sense that your whole life was an error, a mistake, that you were desperate to redo.

I know I should read the oceanic epic. I want to read it. Meantime, my stalling festers growing irritation. Once, there was plenty of time. Today, I’m less sure.

He had his whole life ahead of him; it wasn’t a comforting thought.

The good news is that unfamiliarity does not get in the way of enjoying this contemporary work. The characters and their universe come fully alive on their own merit. One need not be a literary scholar or a baseball fan, for that matter, to appreciate the fictional world of a Midwestern college and its imperfect inhabitants. Nearly anyone can relate to individuals at odds with their flaws.

Personal demons vex each of us, so I shouldn't beat myself up over the lapse. If one of my nagging failures stands as a complicit ignorance with regard to a revered achievement in American literature, then I suppose I’m not doing too bad. I should also never feel guilty for appreciating novels that are not cataloged on every high school reading guide. Good prose and basic human drama is enough to carry a novel. Comprehending underlying meanings emerges as a bonus to the experience.

Not until I was asked about my reaction to the novel did I peg my hedged response. I now see that insecurity led me to moderate and qualify a reply. Even if lofty ideals did not immediately resonate, on the surface the story definitely did. That’s enough. A studious grasp may very well come, once I get my act together.

I will tackle Moby-Dick one day. I may even windup liking it as much as the talent on display from a newer generation. Setting sail on the enterprise could turn into a grind, but I’ve hardly been better prepared to try.

That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph.