Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The whale (part one)

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach; Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville; The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte; The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas; Leviathan, by Paul Auster; The Natural, by Bernard Malamud; The Natural, (directed) by Barry Levinson; The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth; The Magic Barrel, by Bernard Malamud; Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth; David’s Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan; The Dawn Treader Book Shop, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman; “People Who Died,” from the album Catholic Boy, by the Jim Carroll Band; The Summer Game, by Roger Angell; Why Time Begins On Opening Day, by Thomas Boswell; End Zone, by Don DeLillo; White Noise, by Don DeLillo; the Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling; American Pastoral, by Philip Roth; Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I suppose it’s possible to finish reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and not want to pick up Moby-Dick immediately. The fictional liberal arts college in Wisconsin where the novel takes place, Westish, trades charmingly on a once-nearly-forgotten guest lecture by Melville, and Melville and his greatest novel function as touchstones among the characters. For me, this sort of thing never works – it’s the novelistic equivalent of having characters in your movie watch a classic movie, and it only takes a few frames of Hitchcock, say, to make me lose interest in Tony Scott completely. Why should I bother with The Club Dumas, when The Three Musketeers is readily available? That’s always been my thinking, though I’ve made exceptions when the great novel in question is also an invention (i.e., the prisoner’s novel in Paul Auster’s Leviathan [a title referring Hobbes, not Melville, by the way]). But no matter, because Harbach pulls it off, also charmingly, and I moved on to Moby-Dick as a matter of course.

You and I may differ, though. You might decide you want to read another baseball novel, instead, or books about the game. Reviewers have taken the publication of the book as an opportunity to reiterate their admiration for such baseball novels as Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. (Malamud and Roth…I’m reminded of the joke, a favorite among booksellers: What’s the thinnest book ever published? The Great Jews of Sports.) I haven’t read either book, but I’ve now ordered them. I have very fond memories of reading both Malamud’s National Book Award-winning story collection The Magic Barrel and Roth’s controversy lightning-rod (dirty book) Portnoy’s Complaint as a high school student, in the seventy-five cent Dell mass market with the drawing of the uppermost floors of a New York tenement on the cover (Malamud) and the shocking-yellow Bantam (Roth), picked up in nearby Ann Arbor – purchased at David’s Books for fifty cents, or stolen from The Dawn Treader Book Shop. (We did not steal books from David’s Books, which was on the second-story above Discount Records at the time and kept books stacked on the stairway, inviting theft. We did occasionally steal books from The Dawn Treader, which was in a basement on State Street then and kept a first edition of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book on prominent display, under glass, at its front counter – which could have been mere prudence, but rubbed us the wrong way. David’s: cats roaming about, exposed brick, windows that looked out on the neon signs of the Michigan and State theaters; lone employee playing chess with a bald teenager – leukemia? Dawn Treader: a basement, staffed with scolds. Take your pick.)

[We assumed the bald teenager had leukemia because this was around the time of Jim Carroll’s great “People Who Died.” Of course, we were also immortal teenagers, and joked about the possible lethal toxicity of used bookstore odor.]

I’ve started reading Roth novels down through the years, but I don’t think I’ve finished one since Portnoy. Yet I never even tried anything else by Malamud. I think I hated the film of The Natural so much that, even though it obviously had little to do with Malamud, I put him out of mind, and the books drifted out of print for a time, taking care of the rest of it.

So: books on order, and, after the World Series is over, we’ll see what’s what. At that time last year, I went for non-fiction about the game, and read collections by Roger Angell of the New Yorker (The Summer Game) and Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post (Why Time Begins On Opening Day) – which are still in print or, if not, easily picked up used, and pretty much essential if you care to read about baseball.

You might decide you want to read another college sports novel. End Zone, Don DeLillo’s great college football novel, which Chad Harbach cites in interviews as an influence, is my favorite DeLillo book: compact, furious, as funny as White Noise but even loonier, somehow. (Like The Art of Fielding, it’s also a great school novel.) Here’s the opening paragraph, which you can imagine coming from the mouth of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor:

Taft Robinson was the first black student to be enrolled at Logos College in West Texas. They got him for his speed.

Then again, you might just decide to re-read The Art of Fielding, the way some Harry Potter readers, all-too-aware that the next book would not appear for a year or more, turned back to page one of the newest Potter book as soon as they’d finished it. (Harbach worked on his manuscript for a decade.)

I thought about Rowling’s books almost as often as I did Melville’s while reading The Art of Fielding. I’ve read none of the Harry Potter books, but I worked in bookstores during the series’ run, and envied the young readers their untroubled enthusiasm (especially before the industry turned it into a circus). I also (secretly, problematically) envied the adults – a number of my co-workers among them – who said Screw it, chucked aside their vexing copies of American Pastoral or Middlesex, and committed not just to Potter but to the cleaner lines and storytelling virtues of Young Adult fiction en total. I too wanted to fall asleep with a footnote-free slab of story hugged to my chest. A teenaged wizard riding a broomstick wasn’t my ticket, though. I’d have to wait for a teenaged wizard at shortstop.

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