Baseball fiction: Mythological hooey, you're out | Bleader

Baseball fiction: Mythological hooey, you're out


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Chad Harbach
I have great esteem for Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art of Fielding, as a work of contemporary fiction, for its feel for its characters (most of them, anyway), its deft handling of themes, and its incorporation of Melville and Chekhov. But I have to admit, as a baseball fan, I quite nearly can't stand it.

Baseball and its players are interesting enough in themselves for me, so novels that try to invest the sport with a bunch of mythological hooey, like The Natural and Shoeless Joe, drive me up an ivy-covered wall. After a start every bit as promising as a rookie pitcher's shutout debut, Fielding sours for me from the moment the near-perfect shortstop Henry Skrimshander commits his first error, sending himself and everyone around him into a funk of Steve Blass Disease.

No, give me the more realistic baseball novels, like Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Mark Harris's debut The Southpaw (much preferred over the more sentimental if more famous Bang the Drum Slowly). Jack Keefe might be a little over-the-top as a humorous foil, but as an enduring image of a gifted athlete's innate sense of entitlement he's a not-so-distant uncle of Danny McBride's Kenny Powers in HBO's Eastbound and Down, while Henry "Author" Wiggen takes that same sense of entitlement and finds within it a self-awareness that makes him baseball's most intriguing fictional character. Skrimshander, by contrast, is more a cipher, a catalyst who brings about changes in those around him more than within himself.