Wednesday, December 28, 2011

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Let Loose the Rough Rider

David Brooks is the superego of American political punditry. He throws cool water on the hottest flames, speaking evenly of "human capital" and "moral individualism." He understands that political heroes only become such in hindsight; he sees statesmen as fallible managers rather than the authors of history. His idol is Edmund Burke.

Brooks' cerebral approach is eminently useful, particularly in our overheated and underthought political moment. Brooks believes that political problems don't get solved by superhuman acts. They get fixed by the same things that cause them, some combination of self-interest, accident, and horse-trading. In this clear-eyed view of political action, Brooks is a lot like James Madison, who argued in Federalist Nos. 10 and 51 that the Constitution would turn selfish acts into collective boons. No undue optimism for Messrs. Madison and Brooks.

But the needed corrective that Brooks offers our political discourse often becomes too...corrective. Take his column from December 27th, titled "Midlife Crisis Economics". It's classic Brooks, offering a pragmatic take on the present based on a sensible reading of the past. The nut of the column is that the Obama Administration is misguided in its recent attempts to align itself with the Progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt. In the days of Teddy R., Brooks says, the task of government was to reign in the Moloch of America's booming industrial economy; the task at the end of 2011 is to revive that same economy. Government is too large and cumbersome now, Brooks says; in 1904, it was too small and timid. And at the turn of the century, America was a nation of essentially Victorian morals, whereas now it is a nation of no agreed-upon public ethos.

Brooks' points are all well taken, but political campaigning is for better or for worse a game of symbolism. If Americans see Barack Obama as a new Teddy Roosevelt, he may well win four more years. But if he comes across as the second coming of Jimmy Carter, he'll need a new job. What Brooks says is needed from government in our moment—a more nimble, energetic state—is the stuff of the policy paper, not the campaign speech. Obama already comes across too much as the professor. If he can remake the transformer of 2008 into the political brawler of 2012, then historical niceties can go out the window. There are risks to this latter-day Bull-Moose approach: exacerbated antagonism amongst America's already-divergent classes, for one thing. But Obama cannot run the wonk campaign of David Brooks' dreams and hope to have a shot at victory. The Rough Rider approach won't be pretty, and it won't be nuanced. But what was it that Teddy said about carrying a big stick?

Friday, December 16, 2011

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Great American Something or Other

Baseball and the novel: both venerable standbys of American culture that have been battered by the fragmentations of the digital age, both enjoying hearteningly robust years after a decade or so of anxiety. Baseball was blessed with a World Series that was the stuff of legend before it had even ended, the pesky St. Louis Cardinals twice overcoming their last out to win game six and ultimately the championship. Meanwhile, the American literary scene saw several novels capture large and enthusiastic readerships, notably Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, which happens to be about baseball.

Sort of. Though the plot centers around Henry Skrimshander, a wildly gifted shortstop who catches the eye of major league scouts as his team, the Westish College Harpooners, chases the national championship, The Art of Fielding aims to cover a lot more turf than just the national pastime, taking time to consider homosociality and homosexuality, interracial and intergenerational love, the nature of perfection, and Herman Melville. Harbach's ambition is admirable but his delivery is uneven, his heralded book leaving the reader with the same sense of incomplete triumph a baseball fan feels after a half-turned double play.

On the most basic level, there's the physical fact of the book. A hefty five-hundred pages and wrapped in one of the most beautiful dust jackets in recent memory, The Art of Fielding packages itself as a Major Literary Event. But the pages are spaced generously, and rare are the chapters that run beyond five pages, so that the novel comes to seem like a sheep dressed in Franzen's clothing. A minor point? Perhaps, but things like this matter.

They don't matter as much as the narrative matter, of course, and there Harbach is frequently entertaining, occasionally brilliant, and always incomplete. The novel fails to establish its own inner logic, so that certain characters never earn our belief (or suspended disbelief). Henry's roommate Owen, for instance, a black gay man with a literary bent, joins the Westish baseball team by saying to the coach, "I trust you don't object to having a gay man on your team." Or consider Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' captain and Henry's mentor, responsible for bringing him to Westish and developing him from an athlete with raw talent into a complete baseball player. In addition to playing catcher, Schwartz is also the captain of the football team, the de facto Westish athletic director, a minor Vicodin addict, a physical behemoth, a skirt-chaser, and a devotee of Marcus Aurelius. One of those things is not like the other.

Harbach deserves applause for challenging our stereotypes about male athletics. But his challenge goes too far, running beyond the pale of credulity. The problem isn't that a jock as typical as Schwartz can't admire the Stoics, or that a man as openly gay as Own would join the baseball team, but that Harbach hasn't set up a world where these things are believable. That Westish is a small liberal arts college is not sufficient; at one point, Schwartz enviously regards Amherst as a well-funded powerhouse of college sports. Amherst!

Henry is the most elusive character in the book, a string of monosyllables and foggy motivations, creating a sort of vacuum at its center. Oddly, this absence makes him the novel's most believable character, possessed of the zen-like empty-headedness that characterizes athletic genius. It is when this clarity disappears that his crisis begins, his doubts and thoughts hampering his ability to throw the ball to third base. Harbach conveys his desire for simplicity with moving beauty:

"All he'd ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better."

This meditation, which unfolds as Henry floats in Lake Michigan after dark, may be the book's finest passage, with its echoes of the end of The Great Gatsby, and its poignant expression of the universal hope that one day, we will catch up with the ideal self that perpetually runs ahead into the future. This is the dream that motivates all of the book's central characters, except for Owen, aptly nicknamed Buddha by his teammates, who seems to have very few desires. Aside from Schwartz, who worries that his life has no meaning beyond college athleitcs, there's Guert Affenlight, the Westish President, who falls in love with Owen, and his daughter Pella, whose return to Westish after a failed marriage coincides with Henry's on-field collapse.

But only Henry's struggles are related with any consistency, and even these take a fantastical turn near the novel's end. The other characters engage our sympathy intermittently, their journeys advanced more by authorial fiat than narrative logic. In the first chapter, Schwartz calls Henry a pussy after the latter strikes out; it's the pair's first encounter, at a summer-league game. Moments later, when Schwartz sees what Henry can do in the field, he thinks of a line from Robert Lowell: "Expressionless, expresses God." In the pages to come, we'll see a lot of Mike swilling beer and lifting weights and being a pretty good guy, but nothing to suggest he's the type of person who memorizes Lowell.

I alluded to Franzen earlier, and the reference was intentional: he blurbed The Art of Fielding, and several critics have compared the book to one of Franzen's. I think there is an influence here, but it is formal rather than stylistic. Franzen, with his championing of literary fiction that engages people in an age of distraction, has spawned a generation of young writers who weigh their seriousness against a desire to be readable; many of them are associated with n+1, the fine literary magazine that Harbach co-edits. Franzen's evangelism has been largely positive, but The Art of Fielding demonstrates its pitfalls. In his eagerness to keep the reader's attention, Harbach often fabricates suspense, maintaining a willful secrecy around events the reader foresees as readily as Henry anticipates a ground ball. To reveal that Owen and President Affenlight have an affair is to reveal nothing: Harbach telegraphs this plot point at the same time that he tries to hide, as Affenlight thinks amorous thoughts about someone named "O" for a few half-hearted pages before confirming what we knew—that "O" is Owen. Rather than creating suspense, the secrecy just feels clumsy, an MFA-class exercise that should have been edited out.

As the novel approaches its climax, there's a juncture where Harbach could have chosen to send things in a genuinely startling and very dark direction, but he decides against this path, preferring the quirky to the profound. It's just as well, for the ending that Harbach chooses is in keeping with the book's fresh-faced ingenuousness. There, at least, he keeps his novel within the foul poles of its logic. But one finishes The Art of Fielding wishing that Harbach had dared a bit more in the preceding 500 pages. Though we feel for Henry, we never fear for him, or for any of the other characters, for that matter. As the last World Series reminded us, what makes baseball great is that victory isn't assured until the final out is recorded. The same can be said, after a fashion, of great novels, a category to which The Art of Fielding does not belong, despite all of its fleeting charms.

Friday, December 9, 2011

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Stinging In St. Louis

We were hoping to add to the wall.

I'm speaking of the left field wall of Busch Stadium, which is adorned with a series of ghostly images, reminiscent of a Roman frieze. Instead of Scipio defeating Hannibal or Cicero denouncing Mark Antony, however, the wall depicts Musial and his awkward follow-through; Brock racing from first to second; Gibson straining with the effort of a fastball; and Smith at the zenith of a backflip.

As a Cardinals fan born in 1989, I've never felt that those images and the heritage they represent fully belong to me. I've heard my dad tell of Gibson's ruthless efficiency, and recall my grandfather speaking of Musial's inexplicably effective swing. But I never witnessed those things in person; they are mine only in the diffuse way that tradition belongs to its contemporary stewards, the ones who weren't present at its creation. I know Gibson and Brock not as the brash dervishes of the 1960s but as graying men who don red blazers and wave to the crowd on Opening Day. I have vague memories of seeing Smith play at the end of his career, but by then he was more wizened than Wizard, his back-flipping days well behind him.

The understanding was that I would witness the creation of a new epoch of Cardinals greatness. Gibson and Brock weren't my heroes, and they didn't have to be, because the evidence suggested that new heroes inevitably turned up in St. Louis. At first, it seemed the latter-day Musial might be Mark McGwire. Even before the steroid revelations, McGwire was something of an anomaly in the tradition of Cardinals baseball, which prizes grit and scrappiness over raw power. Still, he captured the imaginations of schoolchildren across the city, for he was larger than life. As it turned out, there were chemical reasons for this.

But we quickly forgot McGwire, because his spot at first base was filled by Albert Pujols. Pujols' accomplishments were more befitting of the birds on the bat than McGwire's, not freakishly confined to home runs but spread across the statistics columns, ten consecutive seasons of at least 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, and a .300 batting average. In a city that takes a quiet pride in going about its business, Pujols was the perfect hero. Like Musial, he was defined by broad consistency rather than momentary eruption, and he seemed content to toil away in the Midwest, far from the gaudy poles of New York and Los Angeles. He was on the fast track to joining that pantheon on the left field wall. On many summer afternoons in the six years since the new Busch Stadium opened, I've squinted out in that direction and inserted a translucent image of Pujols, raking the sky with his bat, between Schoendienst and Musial. Finally, we thought. We've found the next one.

We thought we were different. While A-Rod swung like Tarzan on a vine of money from Seattle to Texas to New York, and while Manny yo-yoed from Cleveland to Boston to the Dodgers, Albert stayed put. We didn't see this as an anomaly but as virtue rewarded. St. Louis fancies itself as an old-fashioned baseball town, immune to the modernization of the game. Even as the Cardinals oriented themselves to the offensive mode of the 1990s and 2000s, bringing in McGwire and Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, St. Louis fans pretended that the team was still playing like Whitey Herzog was in the dugout. Even as the Mitchell report showed that steroids had infected every clubhouse in the sport, Cardinals fans pretended that cheating never arrived on Clark Street. And even as the years on Albert Pujols' contract dwindled, we pretended that in the end, it would not come down to money.

We were wrong.

We can point to the ways in which Albert Pujols betrayed us. We can endlessly quote his avowal that he would like to be a Cardinal for life. We can holler about the summer of 2009, when his expressed doubts about the Cardinals' commitment to winning launched a spending spree that brought Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz to town. We can scoff at his profession that he played only for championships. We can thumb at him the Sports Illustrated cover with the headline: "Don't be afraid to believe in me." That assurance referred to steroids, but in St. Louis, we construed it broadly. We read it as: Don't be afraid that I'll leave. Don't be afraid to believe in loyalty. Don't be afraid to have heroes. Don't be afraid to think you're different.

But in the end, we can only blame ourselves. Albert Pujols is not a bad guy; he is a baseball player in late-capitalist America, which is very different—unrecognizable, really—from Rogers Hornsby's America, or Stan Musial's America, or even Ozzie Smith's America. This is not a case of greed trumping courage, of ingratitude trumping loyalty. It is a case of vice and virtue no longer playing into the calculation in the first place, the logic of the market determining everything. Albert Pujols is a creature of this climate. Was he willfully deceiving us when he said he wanted to remain a Cardinal? Was his wife just telling us what we wanted to hear when she told SI that Albert "wants to be a hero to people"? There's no way to tell for sure, but I don't think those things were said in bad faith. No, I think they were typical of one of the sad paradoxes of modern sport: that its enduring appeal depends in large part upon preserving the language of a religion it buried long ago. It talks like Roy Hobbes but acts like Billy Beane, leaving fans to see whichever side of the picture they choose.

In St. Louis, we opted for romance, though we had plenty of time to inoculate ourselves against Pujols' departure. This summer offered 162 reminders that Albert's contract was running up. Every home run, every rope to right field, every heedless pursuit of a foul ball onto the tarp along the first base line bore the same question: would Albert be doing these things in a different uniform next year? Would he perform these feats for other fans? By the logic of fidelity and heroism, it was inconceivable. By the logic of balance sheets, it was cruelly plausible.

But then there was the improbable postseason run, the three-home-run display in game three of the World Series, the magic victory of game six, the hoisting of the trophy in game seven, and hope returned: Pujols said he wanted to win, and he'd done so twice in six years. St. Louisans were ready to crown him as the greatest Cardinal of them all save Stan the Man. They were ready to banish all doubt and point to Albert and say to fans in other cities: "See? Here in St. Louis, there are greater forces at play than dollars. Here in St. Louis, giants still roam the earth." All he had to do was sign on the line.

The Miami Marlins made their push, which faded as quickly as it appeared. For about eight hours, all the agony seemed concluded: Albert Pujols would be a Cardinal for life. Management might as well clear a space for his photo on the left field wall, and buy a few more trophy cases while they were at it. And then, at the precise moment when the city's doubts had ebbed to their lowest point in a year, he was gone, leaving the team with arguably the richest tradition in baseball for a team with one of the most impoverished.

It hurts. After the Cardinals' miraculous win in game six, many St. Louisans talked about what a shame it would be to lose game seven after such a magical evening. In the same way, when the Redbirds captured the title the next night, the unspoken thought in Busch Stadium was what a shame it would be if Albert walked after such an unforgettable postseason that saw so many of us who knew better lose ourselves once again in the magic faith of sports. St. Louisans will say no, that Albert has left but he hasn't taken the trophy with him, but I think they won't totally believe this. What felt like a beginning suddenly feels more like an end.

Will St. Louis purge Albert Pujols from its affection? I don't think so; we're too polite a crowd for that, and time will offer the perspective necessary to wholly appreciate Pujols' incomparable decade by the Mississippi. The anger will cool, and then it will fade. But the ache will remain, and I would be surprised if St. Louis enshrines the man alongside Brock and Gibson, though perhaps we should. Perhaps we should thank Albert Pujols, thank him for showing us the folly of making heroism contingent upon a contract. Perhaps we should thank him for disabusing us of our insular fantasies, for bringing St. Louis into the 21st century. It hurts, but so do many necessary lessons. We thought we were unique, but Pujols' departure has actualized what deindustrialization, urban decay, a declining population, the Mitchell Report, and Anheuser-Busch's sale to a Belgian-Brazilian company have long been trying to tell us: that we are typical, all too typical.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

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Changing Course

I stumbled across this little stuff-I've-been-reading account from Jonathan Franzen on Time's website the other day. Published back in June, Franzen had this to say about Chad Harbach's novel The Art of Fielding:

"It's left a little hole in my life the way a really good book will, after making room in my days for reading it—which is also what a really good book will do."

If you're a reader, your life is populated by dozens of books for which you carve a daily space over a month or two. Much rarer are the books that you carve space in your entire life for in the very fabric of your life; Franzen, of course, is the author who had that effect on me. Before Franzen, I didn't know what writing was. After Franzen, it's the only thing I've really wanted to do. Some days I love him, and some days I loathe him, but every day I'm grateful that he sent my life on a different course.

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Gee, Thanks!

I woke up on Friday to emails alerting me that my essay on The Moviegoer had been selected by staff members of stellar literary website The Awl as one of the year's top ten longreads, placing me on a list with the likes of idols like John Jeremiah Sullivan. This is one of those major/minor events that one is not sure how to respond to, so I'll default to gratitude and offer thanks to anyone to whom they might be due, particularly Nick Unger and Eric Guo.