Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Oil up the hype machine for Harbach's brilliant debut

I've been jonesing for a good story. It's been awhile since I've gotten really excited about a book. There have been a handful this spring that I've liked and felt were well written, researched, etc. But they haven't wowed me. They haven't kept me up late at night, seducing me away from sleep to read one more chapter.

When my advance copy of Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding arrived, I dropped what I was reading and jumped right in--though I was at least the tiniest bit nervous that it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. By about the second page those fears had vanished. By the second chapter it was already indelibly seared into my Best of 2011 list.

The book doesn't release until September, so it would be inappropriate to write my review now, or even give away any details beyond the basics. Besides, despite its 509-page length, I'd like to read it again before writing anything significant about it. It's that good.

But just to give you an idea what it's about, here's the scoop from the back cover:

At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others.

Harbach, in case you haven't heard of him yet, is the Harvard grad who received $650,000 in a literary auction for the rights to The Art of Fielding. Little, Brown outbid something like seven other publishing houses to win this debut novel. There seems to be some doubt it will be a big enough commercial success to warrant that kind of advance. It will be sad if that's true, because this was just a phenomenally written book.

Harbach spent nine years working on it, and it was time well invested. The story is unique, the characters are well developed, and the writing is brilliant. As I read it I just kept thinking, "man, I wish I could write like this." He has such a gift for original and descriptive similes that add color while never disrupting the flow of the story. It feels effortless, though obviously it wasn't if he worked on it so long.

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