In 1996, a star baseball pitcher for the Atlanta Braves named Mark Wohlers gave up a crucial home run in the fourth game of the World Series. It turned out to be more than just a bad pitch; it effectively ended his career. Like many professional sportsmen before him, performance anxiety — what is known in America as the ‘yips’— set in. Wohlers was unable to throw a pitch properly again, ending up effectively disabled by ‘anxiety disorder’.
A young Chad Harbach witnessed the game in which the Braves attempted to rehabilitate Wohlers: ‘They were trying to ease him back into the game; it was painful to watch.’ It was this episode that planted the seed for The Art of Fielding, Harbach’s thunderously popular debut novel that has led to him being anointed as the successor to Jonathan Franzen.
In Harbach’s book, Henry Skrimshander, a baseball shortstop at the college of Westish on Lake Michigan, transforms himself into a model of physical male perfection. Under the tutelage of the captain of the team, his friend and mentor Mike Schwartz, he overhauls his slender body with a brutal regimen of workouts and hefty doses of protein shakes. Soon, major league scouts are sitting in the stands to assess his abilities, agents are calling and Henry is on the cusp of fulfilling his dreams.
But after an errant throw that lands his roommate Owen in hospital, self-doubt sets in. The glittering machinery, in other words, has started to break down. How much of Henry’s subsequent suffering is self-flagellation? ‘A lot of people have these breakdowns,’ Harbach explains. ‘They just don’t have to do it in public. There is a real kind of cruelty to it. I played baseball growing up and I was a decent player, so I had some experience to draw on. I was drawing on self-doubt, trying to make myself into a writer.’
Henry’s downfall could serve, in some ways, as a parable for America itself. The triumphalism after the Cold War has been supplanted by a fear of failure and permanent decline. I ask Harbach if it’s wrong to see his novel as a critique of the American dream. ‘It can be too reductionist,’ he says. ‘Quite obviously The Art of Fielding is a critique of totally transformative success. You can read the book in that sort of way, looking at the complexities of Henry’s rise and fall. In the broadest terms he does what he does by living this extremely reduced and ascetic life. By sort of trying to live his entire life as if you can take the simplicity of what happens in the game and apply it to his entire life. In the terms of the American dream, there is this guilt or trauma of achieving it.’
When The Art of Fielding exploded on to the scene late last year, critics were swift to compare Harbach to others in the American literary canon — John Irving and Philip Roth, among others. ‘It’s funny,’ he says. ‘You read what critics say and it becomes an exercise in books they know well. It’s made me feel poorly read. Eighty per cent of the time I haven’t even read the book they’re comparing mine to.’ This leads us back to Jonathan Franzen, but when I ask if he thinks he’s a better writer than the feted author of The Corrections and Freedom, he bats me away. ‘No comment,’ he says. ‘You can add whatever commentary you want.’
Harbach’s modesty — he notes that he never expected anyone other than his close friends to read The Art of Fielding — is unfeigned. When I mention the New York critic Philip Rahv’s famous essay dividing America writers into Redskins (boisterous) and Palefaces (effete) and suggest Harbach’s book transcends the boundaries, he confesses he hasn’t read it since college.
Harbach grew up in the Midwest, hardly travelled as a youth and experienced a culture shock when he attended Harvard. He describes his college experience as both ‘reformative and deformative’. When I pose the inevitable question — how much of the book is drawn from his own life — Harbach responds with what seems like characteristic reticence. ‘When I started the novel ten years ago, I was an unpolished, unsure young writer. I learnt that not everything has to go in the trashcan; that you might want to look at it again the next day. In some ways I was mirroring Henry’s own progress.’ It would be hard to quarrel with the results. As The Art of Fielding demonstrates, Harbach is not bobbling very many balls these days.