The first thing I noticed about this book was that the cover featured blurbs by both Jonathan Franzen and James Patterson. That's promising, right? It's going to be good enough that Franzen wants to hawk it, but not so pretentious that Patterson feels out of place, right?
After a string of serious duds, this book completely knocked me flat on my back. Chad Harbach is a man who know how to write a book. I literally slept with this book in bed beside me because I could not let it go.
I want to say that this book is about baseball in the same way that Charlie's Angels
was about crime-fighting, but that's not quite the truth. Baseball, its intricacies and the thrill of competition, are at the heart of this story, and you are likely to miss its beauty if that's something you simply can not wrap your brain around. I don't think you have to love baseball to love this book, but you certainly need to appreciate that some people do love it for reasons that are hard to explain. It also helps to know the difference between a short stop and a catcher.
That being said, the plot centers on Henry Skrimshander, a boy whose entire life is baseball. He is recruited by sophomore Mike Schwartz to play for Westish College, a small school in Nowhere, Wisconsin, after he impresses Mike at an American Legion tournament. Fast forward three years: Mike has spent more energy building Henry's future than his own and Henry is on the brink of becoming something big while Mike is treading water. Meanwhile, Henry's roommate Owen finds himself entangled in an affair with the college president, and Mike finds himself entangled with the president's daughter, Pella, who has recently run away from a disastrous starter marriage. These five characters' lives intersect with each other in surprising and realistic ways, and I could not stop turning the pages.
It's refreshing to read a book in which the plot unfolds a certain way because of how well the characters are developed, as opposed to the characters behaving bizarrely in order to serve the author's intent. I didn't find myself questioning the character's actions. They felt so real to me, so complex and human, and I was surprised that I could relate to and sympathize with a male baseball player barely out of his teens. I even liked Pella, and I almost never enjoy female characters written by men. My only quibble might have been Owen, who didn't seem like the kind who'd go out for the baseball team without a stronger reason, but that felt like a relatively minor quibble in a book that was otherwise so strong.
Harbach's prose is simultaneously raw and lush, telling the reader exactly what they need to know -- and occasionally taking their breath away -- without showing off or getting in the way. The dialogue is realistic and funny, not forced in an effort to shed insight into the plot or characters' background. This book is long, but there is almost nothing I could imagine cutting from its pages. Well, I didn't so much enjoy the funeral-at-sea scene, but I suppose it worked in context.
There were a few sentences that made me roll my eyes and once in a while, Harbach's metaphors or Mellville references became a little heavy-handed, but it didn't dampen my enjoyment of the book at all. I simply could not stop reading. And the final scene is the epitome of Redemption without the syrup or snark that ruin so many final scenes.
My favorite book of the year. I can not wait for Harbach's next novel.