The Problem with Sports Novels
Mon, 10/03/2011 - 19:35
Most sports novels, especially the kind that follow a team or an individual through a season of play, face a built-in problem: The drama and suspense usually rides on the team’s success or failure as it moves through the season and plays the inevitable Big Game. Thus, there can only be one of two endings. Either the team overcomes adversity and wins, or it loses—the more literarily resonant alternative, to be sure, but necessarily unsatisfying if readers have become fans along the way.
The list of books and movies that employ ending number one is as long as it is cliché-strewn. From almost every children’s sports story ever written (as a boy, I was particularly fond of Wilfred McCormick’s series starring young Bronc Burnett, who almost single-handedly won the Big Game for his high-school team in various different sports) through the long list of movies that follow the Rocky formula: Underdog rises against the odds and wins the unwinnable game. Whether it’s The Bad News Bears or Hoosiers or The Karate Kid, the pattern is always the same, and in the end, our hero digs down one more time and delivers the kick or shot or pitch or punch that seals the deal.
You will most often find type two endings in the sports novels that attain the highest literary reputations (Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, for example, or Bernard Malamud’s The Natural before the movie changed the ending), but even this higher-brow brand of sports story has its own conventions. The teams usually lose the Big Game, naturally, but sometimes the authors let their teams win, at least on the scoreboard. You can bet, though, that if the good guys win a literary sports novel, somebody will die in the process, thus attenuating the thrill of victory.
I have just finished reading a very fine sports novel called The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, for Booklist’s annual Spotlight on Sports. The book falls squarely into type two, but I won’t tell you if the team loses, or if it wins and somebody dies. More importantly, the scope of the novel isn’t confined to the approaching Big Game, so the reader doesn’t live and die with what happens on the field. Rather, we are treated to a sprawling saga that follows the coming-of-age and midlife crises of five characters at Westish College, a small liberal-arts school in Wisconsin. At the center of it all is Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop of phenomenal ability who has led the school’s baseball team to unprecedented heights. Then a wildly errant throw from Henry’s usually infallible arm provides the catalyst for game-changing events not only in Henry’s life but also in those of his roommate, Owen Dunne; his best friend and mentor, the team’s catcher Mike Schwartz; the school’s president Guert Affenlight; and the president’s daughter, Pella.
In an immediately accessible, almost Dickensian narrative reminiscent of John Irving, Harbach draws readers into the lives of his characters, plumbing their psyches with remarkable psychological acuity and exploring the transformative effect that love and friendship can have on troubled souls. And, yes, it’s a hell of a baseball story, too, no matter who wins.