The Short Version: Henry Scrimshander, a young shortstop, finds himself at Westish College in Wisconsin thanks to the intervention of Mike Schwartz, another ball-player who happens to spot him after a summer league game. Along with Henry’s gay roommate Owen, the president of the college (whose name is Guert), and Pella (Guert’s daughter), they chart the typically complicated world of college and sports and love over the next three years.
The Review: I’ll say it right now. This book is going to win The Rooster in the Tournament of Books next year. It will undoubtedly be on the bracket but I’m positive that it will take the whole she-bang. It is a remarkable novel, even more remarkable for the fact that it is a debut. Also, since we’re talking about that fact, let me put in my two cents on the whole “six-figure advance” issue: it doesn’t matter when you deliver a product like this.
Sure, the book is not without flaws. Owen, Henry’s gay roommate, is so overly defined by his homosexuality that his character seems a bit flat. Sure, he’s a fascinating supporting player (for he is the most supporting of the five ‘main’ characters – I don’t believe the omniscient narrator ever directly follows Owen as the other characters are followed) but there are times when it seems a bit cliché. Almost offensively so, even. There’s just something disingenuous about it and I can’t quite put my finger on what it was. It was so tiny, the sort of thing that could easily be fixed (in terms of creating a character) in a second novel… but it was all the more glaring a flaw because there were so few flaws in the rest of the book.
I wouldn’t call myself a baseball fan, by the way. I enjoy a trip to a ballpark, especially the pretty ones (Citizens Bank Park does not count as a pretty one, unless you consider modern sports facilities pretty). I follow the Red Sox but I don’t live and die with them. Take Me Out is one of the best plays I’ve ever read. So I’m a casual fan, I suppose – but I’ve also never quite seen the appeal of the game in a larger scope. Maybe that’s because I grew up playing soccer and so I expect my sports to have a bit more activity, I don’t know. But the way that Harbach addresses this fundamental issue (that baseball can be, well, boring at times) is so simple: he puts a player onto the field who is beautiful to watch. Henry’s talent is described balletically and before I knew it, I was engaged in the sport. Sure, the pitchers and the hitters are the ones you expect to find excitement it – and the excitement is there, when Starblind (who is so excellently named) and Schwartzy are playing. But Henry’s abilities… they’re drawn beautifully, like a gust of wind across a lake. They’re even more sharply drawn when they start to fail him; his descent after that tragic throw… that passage, by the way, is absolutely fantastic. The whole thing, which would’ve been so terribly bad in most other authors’ hands, was handled so naturally and Henry’s resulting slide is all the more heartbreaking for it.
I’ll admit that some of Henry’s latter problems were a bit much – his relationship with Pella, for example, seemed unnecessary and unreal. Their first coupling made sense and injected some drama (I had visions of a story from my junior year) but their resulting strange relationship was weird and felt wrong. It was like Harbach felt as though he needed another reason to pull Schwartzy and Henry apart, even though it had already happened quite suitably.
The strangest plot in the novel is the relationship between Guert Affenlight (these names kill me) and Owen. It’s not unusual for there to be an older professor/student relationship – but I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised by the one that developed here. Owen seemed a little too mature for his years while simultaneously seeming way dumber than we were told he was by getting involved with Guert. There were some strange contradictions happening throughout the entirety of their relationship… but that’s, I think, why I bought it. Real relationships happen despite contradictions all the time – that’s the magic of romance (to put it in the most cloying terms possible – sorry, I couldn’t describe it any better… yikes). I wanted to scream “HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID?” to Guert and yet… I never found it false. I never found it ridiculous that he’d do these things because, well, I’m a romantic at heart.
The only other thing I found a bit unbelievable was Westish’s meteoric rise to the national championships. Sure, I understand that having a star player like Henry around would raise the level of play by the whole team… but getting to the national championships? And then having Henry basically win them the game, even after he walked off the team and said he wouldn’t join them and all of that odjita? It was a little too “…really?” for me – and I think that’s the flaw in putting so much import on a first novel. It doesn’t matter how fantastic you are: your second attempt will always, even if it’s a lesser book, show a bit more maturity because you’ve gone through it all once before and you’re going to be learning from that experience. This is a spot where I think Harbach needs to do some learning, because that whole sequence was the only truly unbelievable thing in the book (this includes the Pella/Henry relationship, which was just simply wrong – but still on the unlikely side of unbelievable).
Rating: 5 out of 5. I wish I could rate it a bit higher – I certainly wanted to. I had the great pleasure of reading it in Cambridge this past week, sitting in Harvard Yard and in the COOP and by the Charles… and it was a terrific collegiate autumnal novel. I am greatly impressed by Chad Harbach’s debut and I think he’ll have a few more great novels for us down the road – but this one’s dizzying heights made the tiniest errors all the sharper and more obvious. Still, I think it was one of the most impressive books I’ve read all year – much like, now that I think about it, Skippy Dies. Both were books that had some flaws that undercut the true magnificence – but there was such magnificence as one could not ignore.