Two book club friends recommended this novel to me, knowing my young adult sports romance Streamline had just been published. I'm a former small college athlete and this well-written story was indeed right up my alley with its low-budget athletic departments, locker room banter, mental health issues like depression and eating disorders, and anxious, angst-ridden student-athletes. Fielding's
NCAA Division III baseball players spout poetry and write theses, deftly defying the dumb-jock stereotype.
The plot is intriguing, leading up to a wonderful NCAA championship game where it's all on the line. Will highly-scouted shortstop Henry Skrimshander overcome his mental block and lead his team to victory? It's tense and suspenseful, ending in a satisfying yet unpredictable manner.
I did have some trouble with the characterization of this novel. Mr. Harbach's character were rich and complex, yet they didn't grab me emotionally. The characters seem distant and aloof, like the reader's sitting in the nose-bleed section and can't make out their faces or expressions. Though all the characters suffer---particularly Henry---I didn't find myself truly sympathizing or caring as much as I'd like.
Apparently Herman Melville once visited and praised Westish College, and the school now boasts his statue along with the mascot "Harpooners". I don't know about you, but reading Moby Dick
in high school was sheer torture for me, and I enjoyed the subtle jabs to Melville and his novel in the story:And over the years a thriving cult of Melvilleania had developed at the college, such that you could walk across campus and see girls wearing T-shirts with a whale on the front and lettering on the back that said, WESTISH COLLEGE: OUR DICK IS BIGGER THAN YOURS.
Mr. Harbach nailed the smelly, safe ambiance of locker rooms:Locker rooms, in Schwartz's experience, were always underground, like bunkers and bomb shelters. This was less a structural necessity than a symbolic one. The locker room protected you when you were most vulnerable: just before a game, and just after. Before the game, you took off the uniform you wore to face the world and you put on the one you wore to face your opponent. In between you were naked in every way. After the game ended, you couldn't carry your game-time emotions out into the world--you'd be put in an asylum if you did--so you went underground and purged them. You yelled and threw things and pounded on your locker, in anguish or joy. You hugged your teammate, or bitched him out, or punched him in the face. Whatever happened, the locker room remained a haven.
The author has a deep understanding of the athletic experience, and in many ways this was an interesting read. I wish there was a sport psychologist on staff to help out these troubled athletes, but they are able to find their own way through the journey of college athletics.