The Magazine

Inside the Whale

Great strength, glaring weakness, in a debut novel.

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By STEFAN BECK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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—”