Two things first: Harbach is an extremely good writer. This is not a boring book; the story does not “go off the rails,” as the one-star reviews complain, and the time it takes to read it is not wasted. The best thing about the story is the lyrical language: the metaphors, the color, the keen turns of phrase. As a writer myself, I often – not always – found myself in somewhat jealous admiration of his insightful word pictures.
Why not four or five stars, then? There is simply nothing in this book to admire, nothing noble, nothing particularly laudable except for the Schwartz character who exhorts his
teammates to victory. People sleep with one another simply because they are in the same room and there’s a bed there. They drink way too much and do dumb, low-minded, life-wasting things. A college president (many other reviewers complain about this as well) stumbles, with no prior history or inclination, into a dangerous and inappropriate relationship with one of the school’s ballplayers. The story’s long ending is a weird and implausible colliding of bad choices not particularly rescued by a poignant last two pages of baseball.
This kind of book, along with the recent mega-hit “Gone Girl,” apparently feeds a certain type of reading appetite where damaged people make a collective bunch of bad choices and then wallow in the resulting sorrow. It’s baffling (except for the $650,000 advance) why a writer of fiction – who can steer the craft of his story anywhere his creative internal voices want to) – would deliberately abandon the under-traveled road of inspiration. Why not give us a character or two to admire, to root for, to celebrate with as they triumph
against tough odds because they persevered and made their world an improved setting for a five-star tale? Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” and “11-22-63” are perfect examples of much better novels that have all of Harbach’s brilliant prose and storytelling prowess, but also have flashes of noble determination, an acknowledgement of a divine order around us, and good people who bravely grow up.
Most reviews tuck in a baseball metaphor, so I’d say Harbach worked hard enough to put runners on all the bases, nobody out, then only managed a sac fly.