For the last few years I have led a slightly itinerant life. I work as a freelancer, moving from project to project. Sometimes jobs last for a few days, sometimes a few months, rarely for much longer. A lot of the time I work from home, or at least have flexible work arrangements to make up for the days where I often work really long, crazy hours (like fifteen to eighteen hour day crazy). For the next few months I’m working full time, in an office, in the city. It’s an amazing job and I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but jeezo working nine to five - it has it’s drawbacks. But there is something good about having some structure, even for a gyspy like me.
Even in the first few weeks, it’s made me a more disciplined writer. I’ve been getting up early most days of the week to write before work. It’s only for an hour or two, but it’s amazing how much you can get done when your time is precious. It has also made me organise my meals in advance - no more distracting afternoon trips to the market, I have to think about what I’m going to eat for the week on the weekend, and I’ve been making batches of granola on Sunday afternoon to make sure I have a quick breakfast ready for the week. But it’s also meant that I take proper lunch breaks. Sitting at a desk, under fluoro lights, in air conditioning - this is not my natural habitat. So every day (well, every day that Melbourne weather allows for it), I’ve been going out for lunch. It’s a little burst of oasis in the middle of the day, a treat to mark the half way point. A chance to sit in the sun, away from the office, amongst the trees and fellow sun worshippers, and while I eat my packed lunch, I read. And to start with, I read Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding.
The Art of Fielding gathered much discussion upon release, as many debut novels can, particularly when advances are publicised and the book finds its way onto bestseller lists in its first print run. The novel takes place in a liberal, midwestern college, focussing on the school’s baseball team. It’s a coming of age story for both the central characters - particularly the recently recruited shortstop Henry Skrimshander and his mentor and friend Mike Schwartz - but also for the team itself, as they try to turn around their disastrous record with all hopes pinned on the new recruit.
The characters in The Art of Fielding are ultimately quite formulaic: there’s Henry, the quiet jock that works hard to achieve the praise of his coach, peers and girls; Mike, the strong leader who as captain begins each game by espousing grand speeches of courage and strength, but who behind the scenes is struggling to keep it together; the highly characterised homosexual; the equally highly characterised college professor; the troubled girl who breezes into their lives and becomes the object of their affections; and minor characters like the Henry’s family who don’t understand the pressure he’s under, the dumb jocks that make up the rest of the team and the professor’s fussy housekeeper.
Baseball makes or breaks them, and in some cases it does both. A sport rife for metaphors, it gives structure to the characters’ lives and the threads of the novel, but also creates a tyranny, both in Henry’s head, and within the tense mentor-mentee relationship between Henry and Mike.
Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect.
The novel is also littered with literary references, and each of the characters is somewhat implausibly well-read for their age, but this is balanced by the fact that Harbach is self-aware of not only his own writing, but of the college-drama genre. The college professor, realising his own cliche, acknowledges that “sleeping with an alluring female student was the second great topic of American literature”, another ode to the genre and the texts that would have influenced Harbach’s writing of this novel.
Despite the familiarity of the genre, unlike many, Harbach holds his characters accountable. They are far from infallible and the consequences of their actions are often raw and in some cases heartbreaking. It gives the novel greater weight than the average college drama or coming of age story. As the novel progresses and the secrets that each of the characters have been hiding begin to unravel and become public, the realities of becoming an adult are not shied away from:
People thought becoming an adult meant that all your acts had consequences; in fact it was just the opposite.
Harbach’s narrative often reads like a young Phillip Roth, combining the gossip and politics of college campus with broader, overarching themes of what it is to be American. The heavy influence of baseball on the lives of the central characters and on the plot itself adds to the nationalistic conversation, as well as that of masculinity and belonging. The camaraderie of sport, the pressure to perform both on and off field, and the hopeful optimism and belief in the dream that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything (a familiar thread I explored in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings).
The greatest strength of The Art of Fielding is that it is brilliantly paced: the depth and length of the novel gives the characters space to breathe, but it is still written tightly enough that it doesn’t lose the readers’ attention. Characters rise to the top of the narrator’s focus and then dip back down again. This allows for more of ensemble piece rather than a straight buddy story, which gives the book strength. The dynamic of Skrimshander and Schwartz is complex, but with too heavy a focus would either have become dark and unruly, or thin and indifferent. The teacher-student affair would also have risked becoming too sensationalist if not handled with Harbach’s light but honest touch.
Despite it’s faults, The Art of Fielding is an engaging and entertaining novel. It’s easy to say if you like programs like Friday Night Lights or My So-Called Life then you’d enjoy reading this, but it’s true. There’s a genuineness of voice that often alludes depictions of young adults, no overwrought naivety or overly dramatic dialogue. It’s narration is honest and fair to both the characters and the reader. The American dream for the young, it’s an approachable and intelligent gateway into the world of American literature.
Picture this: it’s Friday night. You’re exhausted after a long week of work. Too tired to go out (or stay out) you just want to sit in front of the TV and watch football, or throw on a movie and relax. This is the food of my dreams. The kind of meal you could still very easily put together after a couple of pints after work, but without fear of killing yourself in the process or giving up and calling for pizza. It’s simple and delicious and only takes fifteen minutes to throw together. It’s based on this photo I saw posted by mamacitatime on Instagram that looked so great I curved my plans to get take-away and grabbed a few things from the grocer on the way home to make what I’m calling Friday Night Mexican instead.
This will serve two people in fifteen minutes - just enough time to choose a movie and run out to buy a bottle of wine and dinner’s on the table. There are four components: two are ready made, two require a little bit of effort. The first thing to do is cook a quarter of a cup of quinoa in half a cup of water. Ideally I would always soak quinoa (or any grain) first, but if you’ve already had a couple of pints then you’re already less worried about your digestive health so bugger it. Just cook it on a medium heat until all the water is absorbed. Then you’ll need a medium sized bowl and a smaller bowl. Finely chop half a red onion, putting one or two tablespoons worth in the small bowl, the rest in the bigger. Then finely chop a big handful of coriander, again throwing a couple of tablespoons of it in with the small amount of onion and the rest in to the bigger bowl of red onion. Drain and rinse a can of black beans, adding to the big bowl with half a teaspoon of salt, the juice of half a lemon and a big tablespoon of olive oil. Add to the small bowl the juice of the other half of the lemon, half a teaspoon of both salt and chilli (but more if you wish), a crushed clove of garlic and then scoop in a whole avocado and mix. By now the quinoa should be done - just let it cool a little (or rinse with cool water in a sieve to speed up the process) then add to the rest of the bean salsa.
Serve half the salsa and guacamole to each person, then add a handful of shredded cooked meat (I used sardines here because I could never eat enough fish, but leftover roast chicken, pork or beef would all be good, or you could just grab a barbecued chicken from the supermarket on the way home) and finish with a handful of corn chips and jalapeños and chilli sauce on the side. The perfect meal for finishing the week, sinking in to the couch with a movie and the knowledge of a lie-in tomorrow.
I have been absolutely adoring Chris Ware’s new work The Last Saturday, published in weekly episodes by The Guardian. Following six ordinary people in an ordinary town, it’s subtlety, honesty and authenticity are breathtaking. Well worth following along.