A muscled, bronzed, hairless, oiled review of the first half of “The Art of Fielding”

The Babe. The Black Sox. The Mick. Dimaggio. Jackie Robinson. Clemente. Generations of Cubs fans. Roy Hobbs and “Field of Dreams” and Crash Davis’s “I believe” speech in “Bull Durham.” (“I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there outta be a Constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter.”) Sidd Finch, taught by monks to throw a 168-mph fastball. The glorious mustaches of Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, Rod Beck, Keith Hernandez, Bill Buckner and Dennis Eckersley. Diamondbacks over Yankees in the World Series.

From Life: Mickey Mantle made the All-Star team for 14 straight seasons and finished in the top five in MVP voting nine times. But this photo, one of the most famous depictions of an athlete in decline ever recorded, shows something else: a man on the downside of a glorious career, ravaged by injuries, betrayed by the very body that had brought him fame and riches.

The best thing about baseball, for those of us who love sports but not so much that sport, is the mystique of its best stories, real and imagined. Its capacity for classy nostalgia is unmatched by the other games we watch giant heroes play.

So here’s “The Art of Fielding,” ostensibly about a scrawny shortstop playing his heart out for a Division III college team in Wisconsin. Optioned by HBO. 2011’s best novel, according to Amazon. The New York Times book review ranked it as one of the year’s best books; Sports Illustrated had it as No. 1 in its wrap-up of 2011’s sports media (for whatever that’s worth); and my favorite podcast, Slate.com’s sports-themed “Hang Up and Listen,” has been hyping an interview with author, Chad Harbach, in an upcoming episode.

So I dug in, excitedly.

Oh my God, is this book gay.

The president of Westish College is stupidly named Guert Affenlight, and he’s an old man obsessed with Owen, a young mullato (his word) bench warmer on the school’s baseball team. How obsessed? Affenlight winds up looking for something on Owen’s computer, which gets awkward:

“(H)is wrist brushed against the mouse that was tethered to Owen’s computer. With a whir the screen came to life. He couldn’t help but look. Open in the internet browser was a picture of a man, a muscled, bronzed, hairless, oiled twentysomething man, sprawled in a wooden chair with one hand cupped over the tip of his erect and outsize penis like it was the gearshift of Affenlight’s Audi.”

I know what you’re thinking. No, I was not able to transcribe that without laughing out loud. How about some more?

“The first definable feeling that worked its way up to his brain was disappointment. Owen would never want me, he thought. If this is what Owen wants then Owen would never want me.”

Real quick, for those who have difficulty deciphering Shakespeare: Affenlight is thinking that Owen won’t want him, sexually.

“Maybe he’d been thinking of Owen as a creature of the mind, a pure spirit to be mixed with his own, but that wasn’t quite right, was it? Because Owen had a body too, and a need for bodies – and when it came down to that, how did Affenlight feel about Owen’s body? Did he want Owen in a sexual way? Because that website, that photograph – that was sexual. That was what he was getting himself into, or trying to get himself into. Not that Owen wanted him. But if Owen did want him – if Owen wanted his aging, pasty, great-for-sixty, okay-for-forty, unthinkable-for-twenty body, which was seeming more unlikely by the second – then would he want Owen’s body in return? He thought he did, had fantasized about it, sort of, but compared to the sharp lines of that photograph his fantasies were all caresses and quiet confidences, sweetness and abstraction.

“Two sets of questions swirled through Affenlight’s mind – one set to do with Owen’s erotic desires, the other with his own.”

“The Art of Fielding,” everybody!

There is a good baseball story here, about likable shortstop Henry Skrimshander. (Oy, these names.) Henry has real passion for the game’s history, and works like a maniac daily to become a top Major-League prospect at his small school. One day, though, he uncorks a throw to first that gets nabbed in the wind and winds up smashing Owen in the face. Henry suffers a crisis of confidence when he needs his skills the most, and starts making errors every time the ball gets smacked his way.

Henry’s tale would be the stuff of legendary dusty baseball paintings, luxuriating in a vine-wrapped outfield of some bright green 1960s new-suburban sandlot at sunset… if it weren’t buried in backstory like this:

“If Owen thought Jason was slightly better-looking than Affenlight but much better looking than Owen, then Owen thought that Affenlight was better looking than Owen. Which was a compliment. But to be compared unfavorably to an ex-boyfriend: that was a slight. But the conditional had been used: might even have been. It was like an SAT for gay flirting. Not that gay flirting differed from straight flirting. But if it didn’t differ, why was Affenlight so bad at it?”

Because, um, Who cares!? What are the players on the baseball team doing?

So I made it almost halfway through. Some of the characters (catcher Mike Schwartz, especially) are interesting and charming enough to keep a casual book reader like myself engaged almost halfway through, and I might return to “The Art of Fielding” if I can’t think of anything better to read. Or when the show comes out.

But for Christmas my sister got me that new novel by Stephen King, “11/22/63,” about a teacher who travels back in time to stop the JFK assassination. I just started it, and it’s so much cooler than “The Art of Fielding.” I gotta know what’s going on with the Yellow Card Man. Somehow, he knows.


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