I did a live review of this book for LMFM last week so I thought I should blog my thoughts on it too!
Once again, the Great American Novel is upon us, hot on the heels of Freedom, and with similar great expectations. Its reception in the States has been amazing with all the critics rushing to acclaim it while on this side of the Atlantic, it has even been reviewed in advance of sales! So, undaunted by its 500+ pages, I bought it and read it. Followers of my blog will know that I have lamented the increasing trend for block busters that seem - with few exceptions - to encourage lazy writing and even lazier editing. And The Art of Living is not an exceptional block buster and would benefit from some blue pencilling. And this surprised me as Chad Harbach has been working on this for ten years while being co-editor and co-founder with Keith Gessen of a very high brow and literary journal N+1.
However, that being said, the appeal of this book is obvious. This is an old fashioned story of family, friendship and love, a book of becoming and, being a 'sports' book, it has of course a critical moment, a 'Disney' moment in a crucial match that will alter lives. Harbach writes fluently producing edgy dialogue and likeable characters with whom one can easily identify. Though the backdrop of the book is baseball, ignorance of the game is no handicap to understanding the story. I was reminded somewhat of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, but Harbach eschews the thought and depth of characterization of O'Neill's writing.
The story itself involves five characters: Henry Skrimshander, a country boy with an enormous talent for catching and throwing balls, is spotted by Mike Schwartz, a baseball player for the University of Westish, a fictional liberal arts college on the shores of Lake Michigan, and given a scholarship. At the University, he rooms with Owen, a sophisticated, stylish gay student also a member of the baseball team, and he quickly makes his mark bringing the University baseball team to unheard of victories. The College President, Affenlight, takes an interest in sports while his daughter, Pella, comes back to Westish following the failure of her marriage to an older man and promptly falls in love with Mike. So far so good. Halfway through the book, the story reaches a critical moment and I wondered where it would go from there but Harbach goes on effortlessly drawing us with him.
As I say, this is a book of becoming - all the characters seem to be searching and changing their lives and interacting in a way that reflects the game they are all centred on. In many ways, Harbach is reminiscent of Franzen and Freedom, and the search for the American dream. It is a fairytale.