The Magazine

Inside the Whale

Great strength, glaring weakness, in a debut novel.

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By STEFAN BECK
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Near the end of Moby-Dick is an indelible description of two boats lost to the White Whale: “The odorous cedar chips of the wrecks danced round and round, like the grated nutmeg in a swiftly stirred bowl of punch.” Reality rears its ugly, barnacle-encrusted head, and the mind retreats to cheerful thoughts of the ladle, the pewter cups, and the fireside.

Drawing of a man on a boat harpooning a whale

This tension lies at the heart of Chad Harbach’s Melville-obsessed debut novel, which is also a baseball novel, a campus novel, and a Jonathan Franzen-blurbed publishing event. Fielding’s epigraph is a snippet from fictitious Westish College’s fight song, the sort of thing belted out by punch-ruddied lads of the Old School. The book emanates from a wish peculiar to happy college students: “All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to
ever change.”

Fielding’s hero is Henry Skrimshander, an uncommonly gifted shortstop plucked from obscurity by Westish’s catcher, Mike Schwartz. Mike engineers 17-year-old Henry’s enrollment after observing his skills in a summer game. “Skrimshander”—that’s a maker of scrimshaw, or carved whalebone—is the reader’s first briny taste of Melville mania, but it’s representative of a weakness for pointless allusion. The team has a Starblind, which sounds like “Starbuck”—so? Someone exclaims, “Ah, the ambiguities!”—a reference to the subtitle of Melville’s Pierre. The reader feels smug about scoring an extra-credit point. When, inevitably, the phrase “white whale” surfaces, it’s to describe a house that Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish, considers buying, a “big white symbol of bourgeois propriety.”

There is plenty of lit-major chum in the water, and some find it impossible to resist. The New Yorker’s reviewer devoted a long, rapturous paragraph to sussing out “sly homages” to Franzen and David Foster Wallace, but for “sly,” read “contrived and fanboyish.” As an investigation of male friendship, homoeroticism, and homosexuality, what Fielding recalls is not Moby-Dick so much as that high school perennial, A Separate Peace.

None of this is to suggest that Fielding isn’t a striking debut. Harbach thinks well, plots well, and writes well. It’s not often a 500-page book feels this short. Yet it helps to approach Fielding with a sense of its limitations, because these are its subject, however incidentally, as much as baseball, competition, genius, nostalgia, beauty, love, and English literature.

Chief among these limitations is a rather uneasy relationship with the life of the mind. Harbach, a founding editor of n+1 and an alumnus of Harvard and the University of Virginia, senses that intellectuals are supposed to be a bit squeamish, if not downright apologetic, about the privileges of higher education. He knows what his old n+1 colleague Keith Gessen, the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, did not: that self-consciously brainy conceits can get pretty old and brittle without the neat’s-foot oil of character and plot. Still, are we ever convinced that Mike, a hulking, hot-tempered catcher from a tiny Wisconsin school, would think of Henry in terms of Robert Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”? Do we believe he’d rally his team with Schiller (“Man .  .  . is only completely a man when at play”)?

Harbach is mistaken if he thinks he’s earned this sort of display by writing a sports novel. It comes off like outtakes from Good Will Hunting, another fantasy about the unlikely marriage of book-learning to conventional ass-kicking masculinity. Sure enough, when Mike embarks upon a romance with Guert Affenlight’s married daughter, Pella, the reader is treated to a speech virtually cribbed from that movie:

“You love to make life difficult, don’t you? Mike Schwartz, Nietzsche’s camel. The weight of the world on his big ol’ shoulders. But guess what? Not everybody wants to maximize their pain. .  .  . I’m sorry I went to prep school, okay? I’m sorry I never worked in a factory. Sure, I dropped out of high school. I wash dishes in a dining hall. But that’s just slumming, isn’t it Mike? That’s not real, it’s not real suffering, it’s not the f—ing South Side. For which I apologize. I’m sincerely f—ing sorry my father went to grad school instead of drinking himsel—”

A day will come when it is widely acknowledged that cultural literacy, or correctly calibrated taste, not money, is the marker of elite status. For the time being, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who knows that Finnegans Wake and Howards End have no apostrophes, or (to stay topical) that Moby-Dick does have a hyphen, will quietly capture the imagination in a way that an upper-crust kid who’s actually read these books will not. If Harbach had any interest in dispelling this absurd and neurotic strain in modern thought, he wouldn’t imagine that a college president, of all people, might worry about his large house communicating a shameful concern for bourgeois propriety.

Harbach’s soundest Melville connection rests in the fact that Guert Affenlight, a Melville scholar, the author of a study called The Sperm-Squeezers, once unearthed an address delivered by Melville to the students of Westish in 1880. Because of this fact, Westish made Melville its mascot, erecting a statue and naming its baseball team the Harpooners. If this is contrived, it is contrived in the best possible way, illustrating a status anxiety the reader can easily attribute to a landlocked, uncelebrated college. It is an allusion that earns its keep, and then some.

Henry’s matriculation at Westish College parallels Melville’s minor work Redburn: His First Voyage, though in strictly economic terms Henry has more in common with Mike Schwartz than with the refined, wet-behind-the-ears “Buttons” Redburn. Still, he has much to learn. He frets about his provincial mother’s objection to his “gay mulatto roommate,” Owen Dunne, of whom she asks, “Would they put you in a room with a girl?”

If there was a flaw in his mom’s logic, Henry couldn’t find it. Would his parents make him switch rooms? That would be horrible, worse than embarrassing, to go to the Housing office and request a new room assignment—the Housing people would know instantly why he was asking, because Owen was the best possible roommate, neat and kind and rarely even home. The only roommate who’d want to be rid of Owen was a roommate who hated gay people. This was a real college, an enlightened place—you could get in trouble for hating people here, or so Henry suspected.

Both Owen, who becomes the object of President Guert Affenlight’s queasy-making affection, and Henry, the strapping, iron-armed innocent, owe something to Billy Budd—but not much, as neither one of them comes to real harm. (Melville’s cousin Guert participated in the court-martial on which Billy Budd is based—more showboating allusion.) Owen’s role, apart from his torrid and ill-advised affair with Affenlight, is to get brained by the bad throw that plunges Henry into a “Prufrockian paralysis.” (There are minor-league Eliot references on pages 55, 74, and 328, for anyone keeping score.) Once a Billy, Henry becomes a Bartleby, preferring not to play ball, despite the interest of Major League scouts, and refusing even to eat. Harbach makes some comic hay of this, as when Mike says: “I told [the doctors] only cheerleaders get anorexia. You’re a ballplayer—you’re having a spiritual crisis.”

Spiritual crises are the lifeblood, the navy grog, of Fielding. Forbidden love, infidelity, overweening ambition, the purpose of a liberal-arts education—these subjects are weighty enough, and treated intelligently enough, to outshine Harbach’s serpentine sportscasting and to excuse the odd bit of painfully self-conscious dialogue and grad-student cleverness (“You’re only Jung once,” quips Pella Affenlight).

Harbach’s prose is unpredictable. There are clichés and tics, and a heady odor of polish. A lovesick heart is “a fruit so ripe it threatens to split its skin.” “Arcs” are constantly being “described”—“sensual,” “tight,” “rapt,” “long slow,” and “parabolic.” Sentences like “The silence that filled the Audi seemed profound” (it wasn’t) only serve to kill the mood. Names like Craig Suitcase and Sal Phlox, or Skrimshander, for that matter, kill the verisimilitude.

Is this more sly homage to the winking, postmodern nomenclature of a David Foster Wallace? Why not a film major named Myrna L’œil, or a transgendered activist named Lez Majeste? (See? Man is only completely insufferable when at play.) Then there comes some moment of Melvillean phosphorescence—“With each stretch Schwartz’s knees snapped and popped at increasing volume, as if trying to outbid each other”—and the reader forgivingly remembers that unevenness goes hand in hand with genius.

Harbach’s debut may suffer a little from the double-edged sword of great publicity. Its ending, which deserves not to be spoiled, may be implausible, maddening, over the top in a way it should take a long career to live down. And yes, Harbach may share some tiresome anxieties with his hypereducated peers. Yet he needn’t worry overmuch about the taint of these deficiencies. Melville wrote in Redburn: “Talk not of the bitterness of middle-age and after life; a boy can feel all that, and much more, when upon his young soul the mildew has fallen; and the fruit, which with others is only blasted after ripeness, with him is nipped in the first blossom and bud.”

There are no flies on Harbach. He’s sure to brush off the mildew and keep growing. As a scout might say, he’s a talent to watch.

Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.