Readers' Review: "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:56
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. By many critics accounts author Chad Harbach's first novel, "The Art of Fielding," hits it out of the park. The story revolves around the Harpooners, a struggling baseball team at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin and their star player, Henry Skrimshander. But Harbach says if his book is about baseball it's also a story of the writer. he says he sees parallels between his own life and that of his character, Henry.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:34
Joining me for this month's "Readers' Review," Michele Norris of NPR, Louis Bayard, novelist and reviewer and Jane Leavy, sports writer and author. Throughout the hour I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.

MR. LOUIS BAYARD

11:08:06
Good morning.

MS. MICHELE NORRIS

11:08:06
Good morning.

MS. JANE LEAVY

11:08:06
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

11:08:07
Good to have you here. Jane Leavy, start us off by, if you would, reading a paragraph or so that sort of tells us how this novel is going to develop?

LEAVY

11:08:25
Sure, be glad to. "After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crotch, the fingertips of his small glove scrapping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air.

LEAVY

11:08:49
Even at full speed, his face looked bland almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and quarter maximum. Where the kids' thoughts, whether he was having any thoughts at all behind that blank look, Schwartz couldn't say. he remembered a line from Professor Egglintine's (sp?) poetry class, "Expressionless expresses God."

REHM

11:09:17
Really an extraordinary piece. I think we should say that this is a first novel by Chad Harbach and though he is talking in that paragraph about Schwartz, Mike Schwartz, watching Henry Skrimshander play shortstop, it's an incredible description. What did you make of that passage, Louis?

BAYARD

11:09:54
Well, it sets up the central figure of the whole story. who is Henry Skrimshander? A guy who just has this natural gift and his gift is the ability to throw from shortstop to first base perfectly every time. He just does it without even thinking about it. It's a thing of beauty, it separates him from all the other baseball players in the land and he is drafted his new friend Mike Schwartz to become a member of the Westish baseball squad and he's on the road to fame and fortune because of his unique baseball skills, which also includes hitting and...

REHM

11:10:36
And then something happens, Michele?

NORRIS

11:10:40
Well, it speaks to that passage also the contradiction in Henry's life because he has this incredible gift, this incredible arm. But when Mike Schwartz first sees him those two things don't go together. He's small, his chest is almost concave. He's, as you say, a wisp or as he was described as a wisp of a man. But he has this thing that allows him to reach perfection when he steps on the baseball diamond.

NORRIS

11:11:05
He can throw perfectly every time. The ball just fires off that very slight arm of his with perfect pitch and with unbelievable speed until one time when it doesn't. And when it doesn't there's this sort of unspooling that starts to take place, for several people.

REHM

11:11:24
And we should say that what happens is that the ball that Henry throws with great force goes awry and hits his very roommate in the head with such force that the roommate is put into the hospital. I can certainly understand how that would affect someone's thinking but boy does it affect Henry. Jane?

LEAVY

11:12:03
Well, Henry is like many real baseball players. Someone who gets to the point where what he does is thoughtless, literally. Scientists study this, there's a difference between explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory being something you talk yourself through, whether it's setting your feet, turning, cocking your arm, throwing the ball or checking which way to go at a stop sign.

LEAVY

11:12:31
And with great athletes and I would say artists too, at some point that repetition gives way to thoughtlessness. You don't need to consider what you're doing, it's just implicit in you. And that's where Henry is when this book begins, when he has to think about it after he hits Owen in the head, he falls apart.

REHM

11:12:56
And that's why that passage you read where the look on his face is totally blank, it's because he doesn't have to think about it. He is in that zone that people talk about, that great athletes can find themselves in and maybe ordinary people who are mediating and the like, Michele?

NORRIS

11:13:25
Well, you know, I actually thought that maybe he was starting to think about it because he was also approaching something when this happened. He was approaching matching and perhaps even besting the record of his hero. The title of this book is taken from this slim little volume on "The Art of Fielding" that he carries around with him.

NORRIS

11:13:47
And so maybe he wasn't implicitly thinking but somewhere in the registers of his brain the wheels were turning and we learn as we go through the book that he was aware that he was approaching this big moment and all kinds of self-doubt was probably coming to the surface as he approached this moment of potential greatness. So someone who had great talent but never thought of himself as someone who was great, you know, with a capital "G."

REHM

11:14:12
And Louis, what was that moment he was approaching?

BAYARD

11:14:18
The moment was when he was going to match the streak of his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, who wrote this book that Michele was referring to, "The Art of Fielding." And of course at this point he's also getting a lot of interest from professional scouts, so he's feeling a lot of pressure from that score. I think he's also feeling a lot of pressure to succeed because the Westish baseball team is really riding on his shoulders at this point.

BAYARD

11:14:39
So it's a lot of things being brought to bear on a guy who was until been almost preconscious, he does things without even having to think about them and now it's really a part of the process of coming of age. He now has to think for the first time and that begins to inflect and infect everything that he does and everything spirals out of that.

REHM

11:15:01
And it's the number of games he's played without errors that he is seeking to match the author of "The Art of Fielding." Though really I think weighs heaviest on his mind somehow the fact that the scouts are there, I don't think at least I inferred did not weigh as heavily as that record. Jane, how'd you see it?

LEAVY

11:15:33
Yes, I would agree, I agree with you. you know, Aparicio had sayings, aphorisms and the one that's most central to Henry and to the book is when Aparicio says, "There are three stages, thoughtless being, thought and the return to thoughtless being," and then he goes on in a separate corollary to say, "Do not confuse the first and the third stages. Thoughtless being is obtained by everyone. The return to thoughtless being, by a very few."

LEAVY

11:16:09
And so I think what happens to Henry when he hits Owen, who he adores, who's been his one rock, his one friend other than Schwartzie (sp?), he suddenly has to think about things outside the idyllic world of the baseball field. That locus amoenus that scholars always talk about when they talk about baseball. He has to think about life and death and consequences and suddenly thoughtlessness is impossible.

REHM

11:16:39
Michele, how much of this book is about baseball and how much of this book is about what's inside?

NORRIS

11:16:50
It's both and there's quite a bit about Moby Dick also. You haven't read "Moby Dick" this will, the book will wash over you in a different way and if you have read "Moby Dick," have read it at some point, you'll want to go back to it or maybe even read it as a companion.

NORRIS

11:17:06
It to me was, yes, a book about baseball and maybe that's one of the reasons that I like this book so much is I've grown up with the sound of baseball, you know, in my home. It's in my home now, I'm always surrounded by people who watch on television but listen on the audio and this book kind of felt like that, like the slow sounds of summer baseball.

NORRIS

11:17:25
But it's also a book about otherness. Everyone is sort of reaching in some way beyond the station to which they're born and trying to figure out how they get there and trying to figure out if they actually deserve to be there. It applies to Schwartz, it applies to the university president, it applies to, I guess, less so to Owen his roommate who is perhaps most comfortable with himself.

NORRIS

11:17:49
It certainly applies to Henry and it reminds me of something the artist, the singer Bill Withers once said in a documentary about him. He said, you know, "On the way to wonderful, take a look around at okay." Because okay may be just enough for you and wonderful may be more than you can handle. And that certainly is true for a lot of the characters.

REHM

11:18:12
So for you this book, this novel, was a success, a total success?

NORRIS

11:18:19
You know, I thought it was a little overlong but I loved the music and the language. I like the complexity of the relationships and I like the way, I liked the reveal in the book, the way that things were slowly revealed.

REHM

11:18:34
Michele Norris, she's host and special correspondent for NPR. She leads the Racecar Project and is the author of "The Grace of Silence." Short break, we'll be right back.

REHM

11:20:05
And welcome back to our May Readers' Review. The book we're talking about is titled "The Art of Fielding." It's by Chad Harbach. It is a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year. It was first published in I think '93, is that right? No.

BAYARD

11:20:36
2011 I think it was.

REHM

11:20:37
2011, absolutely. But it's now out in paperback. And I think for me it was also an overly long book, however I'm not sure which portions I would have cut out. Louis, tell us about the author Chad Harbach.

BAYARD

11:21:02
Well, four years ago before 2011 he was, I want to say, just another shmoe, but, in fact, he went about it the right way. He graduated from Harvard. He got his MFA from UVA. He went to New York and cofounded this kind of in-your-face literary journal called N Plus One. He cultivated a lot of important literary contacts but he didn't have an opus -- a magnum opus to show for it.

BAYARD

11:21:27
However, for nine years -- and he was working on this nine years -- he'd been writing a book about baseball and other things, as Michele was saying. it was not considered a good time to be shopping this around. This is 2009. The publishing industry was hit by a recession. Fewer titles were being bought up. And the topic of baseball was considered not that commercial by some people.

BAYARD

11:21:47
So he eventually found an agent who put it up for auction. It was auctioned after Little Brown (sp?) for more than $600,000, which is a huge payday for a first novel. And was received to mostly pretty rapturous acclaim, at least initially. The New York Times loved it. He got blurbs from Jonathan Franzen and John Irving. And I think HBO is now developing a series around it. So to use the parts from this book, he hit a homerun out of the park on his very first at bat. And the sound you hear is a million MFA students gnashing their teeth in envy at his success.

REHM

11:22:21
But you know what's interesting? In the pieces I've read where he has been interviewed, he's talked about Henry Skrimshander as sort of part of who he is in terms of the challenges he faced and perhaps his own struggle to write this novel, Jane.

LEAVY

11:22:49
Well, Henry, you know, as his pal and mentor, Schwartzie, Mike Schwartz the catcher who's coming to the end of his baseball career. His baseball body is already decrepit and now he -- Schwartz talks about baseball as an art. And he says, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer. You didn't work in private and discard your mistakes.

LEAVY

11:23:23
And, you know, I think Chad is talking about the effort that every writer, every artist makes. And the different is in baseball it's all public. And so poor Henry, you know, you could say writers who, you know, shop their stuff to workshops are doing it publicly too. But yes, I think it's about endeavor and it's about attaining perfection, which is the problem.

REHM

11:23:49
There are lots of other characters. The president of the college where Henry Skrimshander now plays baseball. There is the president's daughter, Pella. There is Owen who becomes a much larger figure in the book. And there is Pella's former husband David who makes an appearance, but there develops this extraordinary relationship between the president, a much older man, about 62, 63. He falls in love with Owen. Were you surprised at that, Jane?

LEAVY

11:24:44
Yes, and it was the part of the book that I had the most trouble with frankly.

REHM

11:24:48
I had that feeling. Why?

LEAVY

11:24:51
I didn't believe it. And either that's because it was something that he felt he needed to do. I'd love to ask Chad about it sometime, that he needed to do as a plot point as they say. But I found it unbelievable. I just -- either it needed to be developed more in a way that made sense of it better for me or it -- I don't really think it needed to be there at all, to tell you the truth.

REHM

11:25:14
How do you feel about it, Louis?

BAYARD

11:25:17
I agree that it wasn't that persuasive but I think in some ways it's the most daring element of the novel to show a consensual sexual affair between a 60-year-old university president and a young 20-year-old black man. The age different is considerable, as you said, although about as much as Liberace and Scott Thurson.

REHM

11:25:35
Oh, boy.

BAYARD

11:25:38
But what's interesting to me about it is that in real life we would, I think, have some repugnance about this because we'd think that the president would be the authority figure, would be manipulating the situation. In fact, the way it works out in the book, the president is almost like the kid in the whole thing. Like it's as though he's experiencing love...

REHM

11:25:54
He's been married for years and years. His wife died...

BAYARD

11:25:59
Yes.

REHM

11:25:59
...a few years before. He's alone and for some reason he falls in love with this young man.

NORRIS

11:26:08
It's described as a crush.

REHM

11:26:09
A crush.

NORRIS

11:26:10
You know, he first -- he's taken with him. He has an infatuation. And it's an infatuation of the mind more than the body. In fact it's not until later in the book that he comes across something on Owen's computer and he realizes, oh that's what this relationship is going to involve if, you know, it becomes physical. And it kind of surprises him to kind of think about that.

NORRIS

11:26:31
But I actually thought this was a part of the book that intrigued me because homosexuality was dealt with with such a light hand. It didn't enter the room with the roar of trumpets or a thunder clap. It just was sort of a easy part of the relationship between Owen and Henry. Henry's roommate was Owen. Owen happened to be gay and black. And, in fact, Owen declares it. You know, it says, I'm your mulatto gay roommate, kind of deal with it. Finger snap and then they move on and have a chummy relationship.

NORRIS

11:27:03
And only when Owen develops this relationship, which is outside of his generation, does it become problematic. And I think that the author was trying to say something in that about, you know, the way that homosexuality is viewed, accepted. And it became a problem also for Henry's parents. And that was also generational, but that also had a lot to do with class. And that, I guess, is one of the other threats that runs through this novel.

REHM

11:27:26
Yes. Then there was a point at which the question was raised, had Owen been a young woman, would that relationship have been seen as grounds for dismissal of the president, Jane?

LEAVY

11:27:51
Well, I think in the current milieu, I mean, I have college-age kids. The great thing about this generation is they don't care. They really don't care. And that's, you know, one of the wonderful things about the year...

REHM

11:28:02
They don't care about what?

LEAVY

11:28:04
They don't care if you're straight, they don't care if your transgender, they don't care if you're black, white. There really is a great new generation coming. And I thought he touched on that, I think, to the extent that I understood the relationship between Affenlight and Owen. It had to do with how comfortable Owen is in his own gay mulatto skin. And that was the part that I liked most about the relationship in that it made Affenlight more comfortable in his own skin.

LEAVY

11:28:34
But I also felt it just -- you know, would it happen with a woman? Yeah, I think it would happen with a woman because the one place that we are so politically correct on campus is about sexual harassment, sexual, you know, advances by a teacher or a professor, much less a president on a student of whatever gender and whatever sexual, you know, choice.

REHM

11:28:59
So how important do you believe that whole relationship was to the entire novel, Louis?

BAYARD

11:29:09
I'm not sure how sensual it is honestly. It does show kind of poignant way I suppose a 60-year-old man wakening for the first time it feels like to actual passion, to real love he's never felt before. I think it relates to the feeling of outsidedness that Michelle was talking about. I think it's also a kind of cheeky illusion to Walt Whitman, who's one of the -- along with Herman Melville, one of the literary godfathers of this book.

BAYARD

11:29:35
At one point I believe Affenlight gives Owen a copy of "Leaves of Grass" which I think Bill Clinton gave to Monica Lewinsky a long time ago. And that's clearly -- that's basically one of the most erotic books of poetry ever written. But it also speaks very much to a 19th century sensibility of men loving men, of men being together, playing together, working together. And I think the book comes out of that and is very refreshing in how it acknowledges the homoeroticism of sport, of men coming together to play games.

NORRIS

11:30:09
And well that's -- and that's what Affenlight has been writing about. I mean, the book that made him famous was about this male camaraderie...

REHM

11:30:15
Let's be clear that Guert Affenlight is the president of the college.

NORRIS

11:30:20
...who had this relationship with Owen and who came to prominence -- well, should have come to prominence actually early on through his discovery of Melville. And later came to prominence in the discovery of Melville and his relationship to this college in Wisconsin. And later came to prominence because he wrote a book called the "Sperm Squeezers" which was -- which sounds sort of erotic but is really about the relationship of men in sport and on the high seas.

NORRIS

11:30:46
And in mentioning Whitman, there's this interesting aside that Owen makes about Affenlight when they're talking about Walt Whitman. And he refers to Walt Whitman as, I think, was the gateway drug to homosexuality for men of a certain generation. So there is this -- again, that generational thing about how homosexuality is viewed and the sort of -- the intimacy in that relationship, but also the gulf between them that I think we're supposed to recognize.

REHM

11:31:12
Say more about the -- how Melville plays out in this novel.

BAYARD

11:31:20
Gosh, he's everywhere in this book. He's -- his statue is right there on the campus of Westish college up in Wisconsin.

REHM

11:31:26
Built after this discovery...

BAYARD

11:31:29
Right.

REHM

11:31:30
...of the manuscript.

BAYARD

11:31:31
Exactly. "The Sperm Squeezer" as the book refers to is a sequence in Moby Dick in which the men are literally squeezing sperm oil that's come out of the whale's head. And it's just as homoerotic as it sounds. The team is called the Harpooners. There's a pitcher named Star Blind, that's a reference to Star Buck who is the original first mate. Before he was coffee he was Ahab's first mate. Henry Skrimshander, that name evokes Skrimshaw, the carved whale ivory.

BAYARD

11:31:57
And then you have this whole theme of monomania. Ahab's obsession of course is the white whale and Henry's is just that throw from shortstop to first. That is the one thing that exists for him.

REHM

11:32:08
But Henry seems like such an unlikely Ahab.

LEAVY

11:32:13
Henry actually reminds me a bit -- at least through the first part of the book before he has this, you know, awakening, he reminds me of Billy Budd more than anything else. He's practically nonverbal. In fact, later it's only after, you know, he's hurt Owen and the plot begins to unravel that he starts to have access to words. And he actually talks about it. He says, talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn't plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened.

LEAVY

11:32:45
You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them. And you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words but where they weren't yours anymore. It felt better to talk. With a ball in your hand it felt better to let the ball do the talking.

REHM

11:33:03
Jane Leavy, sports writer, author. Her books include "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of American Childhood," and "Squeeze Play." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Sandy Koufax was my hero as I was growing up. What a guy, what a guy.

LEAVY

11:33:33
Mench.

REHM

11:33:34
A real mench. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to David here in Washington, D.C. Good morning to you.

DAVID

11:33:48
Good morning and thanks. My question is for you actually, Diane.

REHM

11:33:52
All right.

DAVID

11:33:52
What are your criteria for picking a book for your Readers' Review? Many wonderful novels have been written about baseball and you've already mentioned Jane Leavy's own "Squeeze Play."

REHM

11:34:01
You bet.

DAVID

11:34:01
Of all those great novels, how did you choose "The Art of Fielding" as your first baseball novel and when will you discuss your next baseball novel?

REHM

11:34:08
Well, I'll tell you what happens in the decision to choose a book. Everybody chimes in with a title. Everybody come up with maybe three or four titles. And the one that rises to the top is the one we use. And in this case it was Becca Kaufman's selection. She had already read it, she loved it, she said it was a perfect summer baseball book. Rather you love Philip Roth's book, don't you?

LEAVY

11:34:55
Well, I like parts of Philip Roth's book. It's "The Great American Novel" and, you know, every great American novelist seems compelled to write a baseball novel.

REHM

11:35:04
A baseball novel.

LEAVY

11:35:06
And in "The Great American Novel," which I think dates back to 1973 and it's sort of proto Roth, he has a description about writing in baseball that I think is pertinent to all of us who write about baseball, and particularly this novel. And what he says is, the beauty and meaning of baseball resided in the fixed geometry of the diamond and the test it provided of agility, strength and timing.

LEAVY

11:35:33
Baseball was a game that looked different from every single seat in the ballpark and consequently could never be represented accurately unless one were able to put together into one picture what every single spectator in the park had seen simultaneously, moment by moment throughout an entire afternoon. And that included those moments that in fact accounted for half the playing time, if not more, when there's no action whatsoever. Those moments of waiting and hesitation, readiness and recovery, moments in which everything seized.

LEAVY

11:36:08
And that's why we write about baseball, because there are those moments. That's why you love listening to it on the radio. There's room in baseball, there's air in baseball for a writer to be able to imagine and to see and to write actual sentences, even on deadline.

REHM

11:36:27
And there has to be, I must confess, David, one more reason why we chose -- why I finally settled on this book. When I was at the Department of State and my husband was at the Department of State he played on the men's team and I played second base on the women's team. And baseball really, really brought us together. I think we made our first bet on dinner as to who was going to win the World Series that year and I won the bet.

BAYARD

11:37:14
Good work.

REHM

11:37:15
So we'll take a short break here. And when we come back, more of your questions, comments. Stay with us.

REHM

11:40:04
And just to finish that story, we actually won a championship for the State Department that year. All right. Let's go back to the phones, 800-433-8850, to Cape Cod, Mass. Good morning, Karen.

KAREN

11:40:26
Good morning, Diane. I'm thrilled to be talking to you. I'm a big fan...

REHM

11:40:31
Oh, thanks.

KAREN

11:40:32
...of you and your show. I wanted -- I'm thrilled that you're talking about this book. My mother who passed away last September was reading the book when she passed away, so she was not able to finish it.

REHM

11:40:46
Oh, I'm sorry.

KAREN

11:40:48
Thank you. But she did recognize the beauty and the town in the writing. She was a prolific reader and I had a hard time keeping her in books. But she really was enjoying the book very much.

REHM

11:41:06
And, Karen, have you read the book?

KAREN

11:41:10
Yes, I read it first and then I passed it on to her.

REHM

11:41:12
I'm so glad you did. It's just a -- I think overall a really, really good read. How do you feel about it, Jane?

LEAVY

11:41:24
Well, I love the -- what I consider to be the central part which is the conflict between thinking and action. And it is, you know, an issue that occurs in sports and I would say elsewhere over and over and over again. They've done studies about ballplayers who suddenly can't throw anymore, the Bill (sic) Blass' and Steve Sax. And what they've discovered is you get something when you're doing things well called performance induced amnesia, which Henry has, until he has to think.

LEAVY

11:41:58
And what they've done is they've made people try to describe what they're doing while they're doing it. And as soon as they require them to think about it, they immediately fail. So it's that thing between -- that conflict between what is an explicit memory and an implicit memory, and that is the center of the book. That's what I love the most about it.

REHM

11:42:22
Michele, talk about Pella. She's the only female character in this sea of men. How does she fit in? Is her character as strong as it needs to be?

NORRIS

11:42:39
I am of two minds on this, because on one hand Pella is like the grout in between the tiles on the wall. She holds the story together. She has relationships. At the beginning with some of the characters, she's the president's daughter, the president of the university, but she develops these complex web of relationships with several of the other characters. And yet for me if I speak honestly, her presence sometimes felt intrusive. She felt like a woman in the locker room almost.

LEAVY

11:43:07
Hey, watch it. That's my job.

NORRIS

11:43:08
I know, I know, I know. And I realize that when I say it, but a woman who didn't own her place in the locker room, like someone who sort of snuck in, instead of came in and sort of said, I'm here and I'm part of the action. She sort of hovered around the edges because she was so uncertain with herself.

REHM

11:43:25
She was betwixt in between. She had run off to marry a visiting professor on a whim. She went to bed with him. She runs off with him. She marries him. She doesn't like being married to him. She comes back to her father without even letting her husband know she's leaving. He follows her at one point and she makes it clear she is not going back. He is much older than she. I found that an interesting parallel to the fact that her father has this crush on Owen.

NORRIS

11:44:09
And also at the moment when her father, who's always had a complex relationship with Pella, has a chance to redeem himself and be the parent that she so desperately, desperately needs him to be, he chooses another person of her generation to connect with, and just sort of isn't there for her in the way that she needs it. I mean, she's sort of ambling through life and ambling through the story and even her relationship with Mike Schwartz, who is my favorite character. And he shows up and he wants to ask her for a date and he is sort of the quintessential Chicago...

REHM

11:44:42
Yeah.

NORRIS

11:44:42
...scholar from the south side, you know, who is smarter than he seems and is kind of uncomfortable asking her out. And there's this interesting moment where she says, well, I can't go out with you because I have glee club and I have this and I have that and then I have a date with a quarterback. And he says, I'm the quarterback of the football team. And so she winds up in this relationship with him.

REHM

11:45:04
Yeah.

NORRIS

11:45:04
Again, just sort of falling forward. So I guess she holds the story together, but I felt that she was frustrating, you know, for me. I liked the story around her as opposed to the -- she was not the vehicle through which I enjoyed the story.

REHM

11:45:25
And...

NORRIS

11:45:25
She was necessary, but she didn't provide the music of the story for me.

REHM

11:45:29
You talk about the fact that you felt that the homosexual part of the book could have been done without. I think the fact that -- Jane, that Pella falls into bed with Henry made no sense to me.

LEAVY

11:45:54
Well, it's a college campus. You know what they do at college campus.

REHM

11:45:57
But, I mean, was it supposed to free him of his focus on throwing the ball perfectly? Did it unleash anything? Did it help him?

BAYARD

11:46:12
I don't quite understand that part either. I wasn't sure how far you were going to go with the plot. But Henry -- that actually gets at what I consider one of the weaknesses of the book, is that Henry himself is so under-realized. He's at the center of this thing...

REHM

11:46:24
Right.

BAYARD

11:46:24
...and yet he's a kind of cypher. We don't really get any sense of interior life from him. And so you have that kind of vacancy at the center of the story. And then when that happens, when he actually falls in bed with Pella, to me it was like, where did that even come from...

REHM

11:46:37
Yeah.

BAYARD

11:46:37
...because there's no sense even of sexual identity from him one way or another.

REHM

11:46:40
Right, yeah.

BAYARD

11:46:41
There's no sense of agency or causality or anything.

LEAVY

11:46:44
And remember he hurts her.

NORRIS

11:46:46
Yeah.

LEAVY

11:46:46
And that I found very disturbing. Not necessarily surprising, but disturbing, you know. She's got bruises on her shoulders after they have their first sexual encounter. And, you know, again, I think the choice to make him a blank was intentional, but that causes a writing problem when he needs to become a full-fledged person, because he hasn't been up until then.

REHM

11:47:11
What do you think those bruises represent? What do you think his use of power that, you know, has thus far only exhibited itself on the baseball field?

LEAVY

11:47:30
Doesn't he say at some point that it's easier to do that than to inflict harm on the baseball? He said something to that effect.

NORRIS

11:47:37
Yeah, yeah. Well, that was what was disturbing that when he finally does have a relationship it is -- it's hovering around the edges of an act of sexual violence.

REHM

11:47:46
Yeah.

NORRIS

11:47:46
I mean, I think that may have been the strength in his arms...

REHM

11:47:49
Right.

NORRIS

11:47:49
...but it was also probably a manifestation of his madness.

BAYARD

11:47:53
He's also somebody who defines himself as an athlete. All he knows what to do is to use his body. He's being helped through his course by Mike Schwartz and all his friends, so he's used to thinking himself as a physical being.

REHM

11:48:04
True, true.

BAYARD

11:48:05
That seems to be the only way he can express himself (unintelligible).

REHM

11:48:07
All right. Let's...

LEAVY

11:48:08
And I think he's not aware of how strong he is.

REHM

11:48:10
Yeah, yeah.

LEAVY

11:48:10
And Schwartz, he's made him into this, you know, impeccable specimen.

REHM

11:48:14
Giving him all of these liquids and body building exercises and that sort of thing. We're not told that it is Henry's first sexual encounter however. Are we?

LEAVY

11:48:32
I think it's implicit.

NORRIS

11:48:33
He talks about being a virgin elsewhere in the book. And since we don't meet any other paramours anyplace along the way, I guess you assume that it's his first encounter.

REHM

11:48:44
All right.

NORRIS

11:48:44
But you just said something interesting, Diane, how Schwartz got him to build up his body.

REHM

11:48:49
Absolutely.

NORRIS

11:48:49
But remember this happens on a college campus and there's actually so little in this book about building his mind as well. And so the author may have been making a comment about sports...

REHM

11:49:00
Indeed.

NORRIS

11:49:01
...in college campuses.

REHM

11:49:02
Indeed. Let's go to Mathis in Dayton, Ohio. Good morning.

MATHIS

11:49:09
Hi.

REHM

11:49:10
Hi.

MATHIS

11:49:11
I am calling -- I am not very familiar with your program, but I was just listening on my way to work and someone made a comment about my generation and how much you appreciated my generation for being open and how much we didn't care. And then you asked, like, what do you mean by we don't care? And then you said, we don't care about race, gender and you went on a long list. And I just wanted to call because I really appreciated that comment.

REHM

11:49:37
Take credit, Jane Leavy.

LEAVY

11:49:39
Well, thank you for saying that. It's probably because I have, you know, kids who have been on campus recently. And I really do think it's a much more nonjudgmental generation. And I think that prefigures a much better place in this country for all of us.

MATHIS

11:49:57
Well, thank you. I just -- and then I want to carry that and I want to keep pushing that for our generation.

REHM

11:50:03
Thanks, Mathis. I'm glad you called. We haven't mentioned that we hear the lines from T.S. Eliot. Those are gorgeous lines, Louis.

BAYARD

11:50:20
April is the cruelest month, is that the lines you're referring to?

REHM

11:50:23
No. He's talking about, do I dare and do I dare, a few times.

BAYARD

11:50:35
That's from "Prufrock" I believe. And it's a very appropriate line, you're right, for this book, which is all about identity and trying to figure out who we are. The central predicament that Henry faces is something we can all relate to, even if we don't care about baseball, which is there's this one thing that you know how to do and you've been doing it all your life, and it's identified you and it's defined who you are, and suddenly that goes away, and who are you, who are you at that point, what is your identity if you take away this gift of yours. And I think it's something we can all feel because gifts are perishable, right?

LEAVY

11:51:10
I've actually written stories when I was at The Washington Post about athletes, a particular pitcher, a guy named Kevin Saucier, who was one of the greatest relief pitchers for a whole year. And then one day he threw two fast balls behind the head of an Oakland A batter and he was never able to throw accurately again. And he had no idea who he was. He went home and opened a pizza parlor, Saucier's Pizza Parlor in Pensacola, Fla. Because this is all they're trained to be. It's their entire identity.

REHM

11:51:45
But Henry redeems himself at the end of the novel. He sacrifices himself in order that that team will win the entire national championship. He literally -- he knows he's not a great hitter. He knows that the pitcher who's pitching is a rat. And he sacrifices himself. Really, really sacrifices.

LEAVY

11:52:25
Well, he is a great hitter actually. He's just not a great hitter then because he's been out of practice.

REHM

11:52:31
Right, right.

LEAVY

11:52:31
And he talks about how much the repetition of the event, whether it's throwing or hitting or, you know, picking up a ground ball, is a function of repetition.

REHM

11:52:40
So important.

LEAVY

11:52:41
But it's significant that what he does is give himself the same injury that he inflicted upon Owen. And that's where he finds redemption.

REHM

11:52:51
Full circle.

LEAVY

11:52:52
Yeah, he gets hit in the head. He gets beaned.

REHM

11:52:54
He really gets beaned and wakes up in the hospital. But the fact of the matter is he put his shoulder up to have that ball hit it and it hit his head and they, his team, won the game. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Boone, N.C. Good morning, Leon.

LEON

11:53:21
Good morning, Diane. This is an extremely enlightening and incisive show.

REHM

11:53:24
Oh, good.

LEON

11:53:24
And since we've been talking about literary references, you mentioned "Prufrock" and T.S. Eliot, I was kind of wondering if Owen is a pickup of John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany," which has as part of its plot a baseball that is hit and strikes somebody who dies and entirely changes the characters' lives from that point on. I was wondering if your experts might have any thoughts about that.

REHM

11:53:46
Well, I don't know about my experts, but I certainly mentioned it in the office after I had read the first few chapters of this book, it reminded me so much of that. I'm sure you've all read "A Prayer for Owen Meany." How did you see the comparability?

BAYARD

11:54:07
Oh, I agree there was a lot of -- there was a lot of comparability there. I think the ball he hits kills the narrator's mother who's...

REHM

11:54:13
That's exactly right.

BAYARD

11:54:14
Yes, yeah. So it's kind of -- it's almost a biblical act of smiting. And that's a very sympathetic character. The book also has I think a bit of a gay subtext itself. The narrator is thought to be gay by some other people in the book. But what interested me is that there's also a real life analogue, Chuck Knoblauch with the New York Yankees back in 2000, went on one of those -- the Australians call them yips, where the same thing that Henry goes through, where he just -- he's a second baseman, he can't throw it to first, and his throw went so wildly awry that actually struck a woman in the stadium who is sitting behind the first base dugout, who happened to be Keith Olbermann's mother. That's not really -- it's just...

REHM

11:54:51
Wow, wow.

BAYARD

11:54:52
But it happens in real life. I think the thing, if there's a villain in this book, and I don't think there really is, in terms of human terms, it's the baseball itself. It's such a pitiless force and it can actually hurt you. It can...

REHM

11:55:04
He describes the feel of that baseball in very, very specific terms, Jane.

LEAVY

11:55:11
Yes, and the 108 stitches in it. And this piece I wrote about this poor young pitcher had exactly Henry disease, Kevin Saucier, his wife when a guy decides to quit, he says to wife, are you sure this is okay? And she says, it's you I want, not that damn white ball.

REHM

11:55:33
Oh, how interesting.

NORRIS

11:55:35
You know, with a name like Saucier, though, you could argue that he was meant to own a pizza parlor.

LEAVY

11:55:40
I think he may be in back in baseball a scout now.

REHM

11:55:43
Oh, you never know. Well, I'm not going to give away the final, final, final ending, but what did you think of that ending? Did it work?

BAYARD

11:56:05
It's not where the -- I thought the book was going I have to say. It's not the arc of triumph that we might be used to from traditional sports chronicles. it's a kind of reverting to origins. And that seems to be the whole motion of the book is a circular one back to principles. I don't know what to say beyond that without giving away what's happening.

NORRIS

11:56:27
I'm going to be careful and try not to give too much away, not to issue any kind of spoiler, but sometimes the ending is not worthy of the book, or it doesn't seem to, as you say, take you where you think you're going.

REHM

11:56:41
It was sort of added on.

NORRIS

11:56:45
But sometimes you just enjoy the journey, you know, and not focus so much on the destination. And for me the journey was sublime. I really enjoyed this book. And I was -- I don't want to say perplexed, but I was surprised by the ending and yet I still enjoyed this book.

REHM

11:57:01
I'm so glad. And I'm so glad the three of you have been here to talk about this book. Michele Norris of NPR. Louis Bayard, he's a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy," "The Pale Blue Eye," "The Black Tower," and "The School of Night." And Jane Leavy, sportswriter and author. Thank you all so much. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.

Our address has changed!

The Diane Rehm Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.