March 17, 2012 § 7 Comments
Finished: The Art of Fielding.
Among my favorite books as a kid were sports stories of the Matt Christopher ilk, especially basketball and baseball books. These books more or less always featured a preteen or teen whose real-world problems overlap with and affect their sports abilities. I still have one of these, which I’m pretty sure I bought through Weekly Reader for $4 or so: Johnny Long Legs, featuring a new kid in town heroically struggling to improve the strength of his freakishly long legs and help his school’s basketball team, the hilariously named White Cats. But I loved the baseball books, too, and have a vivid memory of reading one on my bed on a rainy summer afternoon, swept away by a young shortstop’s difficulty with turning the double play.
I mostly read these books for the descriptions of the games: the main, non-sports conflict in the book was only useful insofar as it enhanced the conflict I really cared about, that of the Cougars vs. the Eagles or whatever mascots were involved. To be honest, I also just loved the creation of team and player names, uniforms, and mascots. My favorite sections of pretty much all of these books were the expository paragraphs at the beginning of the games, the scenery of names, colors, gyms or fields.
All of which is to say that, though I’ve done an awful lot of reading since then, there’s still a big part of me that craved the baseball action in The Art of Fielding, and that valued it as a baseball book with a nostalgic, Christopher-esque structure: boy loves baseball, boy has baseball-related life problem (or life-related baseball problem?), boy finds help and solves problem to improve baseball skills. Harbach intentionally embedded this nostalgic structure, I think, having a similar reading background: in this interview, he mentions growing up reading “Matt Christie” books, which I think is a reference to Matt Christopher. And you can feel his delight in the creation of the Harpooner’s uniforms and logo, and those of their small-college rivals. The “powder-blue jerseys” of the Muskingum Muskies (a real school whose colors appear to be red and black). The “beet-red” jackets, uniforms, faces of the preppy Coshwale “douchetards.” And, especially, the mild satire of the Opentoe College Holy Poets, in “threadbare brown-and-green uniforms” like a bunch of John the Baptists or Thoreaus.
Of course, because this is not a kids’ book, Harbach uses Henry Skrimshander’s baseball problem as a way into complex thinking about life and the process of becoming a functioning human adult, and critiques its own embedded YA sports-book structure. But it’s also a really good baseball book, and one of its interesting sidelights is that it might, in its roundabout way, show how maybe athletics of the small-college variety could still have a place in the educational mission of institutions of higher learning. (There’s no point in even trying to defend big-money Div I programs anymore. They’re hopelessly corrupt alum-appeasing farm systems with zero educational reason for being. And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, every administrator knows that.)
The device that brings this all together is the eponymous book within the book, The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, Henry’s idol, a Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. Rodriguez’s book is a collection of numbered items of practical advice, epigrams, and aphorisms, some of them cryptic koans. The two most important appear very early in Harbach’s book:
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.
These epigrams form a fascinating thought. These two statements are bookends to Rodriguez’s book, the earliest and latest excerpts we are given from it, and keys to Harbach’s book, as well.
The first is the journey of Henry Skrimshander compressed to a “simple” Buddhist thought. In the book’s gorgeous, idyllic 50-page opening overture, Henry is a “natural”: a scrawny South Dakota kid whose preternatural grace, constant practice, and passionate love for the game have made him the perfect defensive shortstop. He thoughtlessly is a being made to play shortstop. If such being is useful, we call it talent, and Mike Schwartz recognizes and hones Henry’s talent. In a bravura passage at the book’s center, Mike reflects on Henry’s development, and “[t]he making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.”
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine….
The body of the book constitutes “Thought” in Aparicio’s formulation, introduced to Henry’s mind by his near-fatal errant throw into the dugout, and brings us to the second aphorism. Sanction is a complicated word. A sanction can be a permission or encouragement; it can also be a punishment, and this seeming contradiction stems from the word’s original meaning of a law or decree — and, even more interesting, its etymology from the Latin sancire, “to render sacred or inviolable” (per OED). Death can be the athlete’s sanction in the sense that Mike uses above — encouraging production of the grace and beauty that athletes feel and display in the use of the lively body that will eventually perish and move no more. But it can also be a warning or punishment, as when Henry nearly kills Owen with a bad throw, and has his own brush with death later. And athletes grow older, lose their skills. The athlete must become reconciled to the mini-death of losing the body’s ability, an image of the larger, final death of the body and spirit.
Beyond the level of the individual, Henry’s crisis of thought — his severe case of “Steve Blass Disease,” or “the yips” — also has cultural significance. In another great passage, the literary scholar Guert Affenlight reflects on the apparent lack of such cases before 1973:
It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport…. that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.
Rodriguez’s Buddhist formulation has an important codicil: “33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.” Henry has to come to realize that he cannot un-think the thought — the consciousness of life, and death, to which he has been awakened — which has been introduced, but must understand and learn from it. His (and Mike’s) desire for life to remain forever the same must be understood as impossible. Like any college student, and any baseball player, he has to move into the world, and become an adult, to be able to play again. There’s a lovely little intimation of this cycle in an early training scene. Henry, in the batting cage, seeks to “meet the ball so squarely that it retraced its path and reentered the mouth of the pitching machine, sending the big rubber wheels spinning in the opposite direction, as if reversing time.”
March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
Finished: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.
Reading now: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.
I’m not sure quite where You Know Me Al stands these days. It was both wildly popular and critically acclaimed in its time (shocking fact: Virginia Woolf somehow loved or pretended to love this book — look it up, there’s an easy-to-find blurb), then became one of those last-generation books that no one actually reads, and now — is it a semi-forgotten classic? A bestseller that’s found its way to the appropriate level of public awareness? I suppose it’s something like a cult classic now, though even when I lived in Chicago pretty much no one I knew had read or even heard of it. But I suppose book cults must be the smallest cults of all. We’re not talking Jesus and Mary Chain here. We’re not talking Lebowski.
But there’s a little of YKMA‘s DNA in Lebowski as there is in all American satire, all American humor. The book’s a transcription of the letters home of Jack Keefe, young pitcher for the White Sox, to his “old pal” Al of Jack Keefe. It’s rife with misspellings, malapropisms, double negatives, horrible grammar. Jack’s dumb. And an asshole. But he’s an entertaining asshole, an asshole on many levels and in many different ways. I love it when he’s both too clever by half and obtuse, as in this passage:
Bodie and Schalk was on when I come up in the 5th and Hill hollers to me and says I guess this is where I shoot one of them bean balls. I says Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you. You see what I was getting at Al. I was insinuateing that if he beaned me with his fast one I would not never know nothing about it if somebody did not tell me because his fast one is not fast enough to hurt nobody even if it should hit them in the head. So I says to him Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you. See, Al?
Thinking of Hill, the pitcher, trying to sort all of that out on the mound cracks me up.
Al ends up being a fascinating character in absentia, because you end up just itching to see the other side of the correspondence: does he realize what a jerk Jack is, even to him? Is he just that loyal, or is he as dumb as Jack (or dumber) to keep bailing him out with loans and running errands for him back in his hometown? Does he take offense to Jack’s apparently unintentional but really mean slights of Al’s wife Bertha, or not even notice them? I like to think of Al as the good angel to Jack’s bad: taking care of his family, loyal to his friends and teammates, overlooking the human foibles, errors, and monstrosities of his pal in favor of remembering good times they’d shared.
Lardner clearly knew baseball from his sports writing, and he doesn’t let management off altogether: Charles Comiskey, the real-life owner of the White Sox, is a character here, and is treated as no saint when it comes to taking advantage of the onerous contracts of the day. And in the end, when Jack is talked into an around-the-world tour of exhibition games with the White Sox for nothing but living expenses, we see the other side of the equation of Jack’s naivete and idiocy: businessmen taking advantage of it for material gain.
You Know Me Al has an infrequently cited subtitle: A Busher’s Letters. Partly I suppose this is a matter of branding, because the first section appeared in the Saturday Evening Post under the title “A Busher’s Letters Home” and subsequent chapters appeared as stories there, as well. But partly it’s Lardner’s sly dig at Jack Keefe, the titular busher (baseball slang: one who is or belongs in the bush, or minor, leagues). In terms of talent, Keefe turns out to have enough to win a lot of games for the White Sox (assisted, surely, by pitching during the end of the “dead ball” era when 1-0 scores were a regular occurrence) and back up his incessant braggadocio, which surprised me. But he’s forever a busher in his contempt for his teammates, his utter lack of self-awareness, his naive belief in his omnipotence and omniscience. He’s a rube, and an American archetype.