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by Richard Labonte
“The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach. Little, Brown, 524 pages, $25.99 hardcover.
College baseball is merely the surface subject of Harbach’s perfect-pitch debut novel. At its heart is a shy and scrawny shortstop prodigy, Henry Skrimshander, plucked from dusty, small-town playing fields by Westish College baseball team captain Mike Schwartz to power the Harpooner’s – so named because college president Guert Affenlight, as a student, unearthed long-lost writing by Herman Melville – to long-sought nationals. The games recounted along the way are riveting, even for non-fans of baseball. But off the playing field, this is a coming-of-age novel that is at once spirited and melancholy – and quite, quite queer. Henry’s dorm-mate is fashionably effete Owen Dunne, effortlessly comfortable with his gay self whether as man-about-campus or at bat; life-long bachelor Affenlight – though he has a flighty daughter, Pella, who also figures in the story – is smitten with the lad. As the story unfolds, the destinies of these five characters reach a tipping point, leaving the reader unsure whether their dreams will be realized. In that sense, this impressively affecting novel is a lot like real life.
“We the Animals,” by Justin Torres. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pages, $18 hardcover.
This enthralling debut novel, knitted into propulsive story form through a series of disconnected vignettes, recounts six rambunctious years in the wild-boy lives of three brothers: Manny, Joel and the unnamed narrator. In their younger years, they are tough and inseparable – sitting at the kitchen table joyously smashing tomatoes one day, another day sheltering one another from their white mother’s and their Puerto Rican’s father’s erratic behavior and tempestuous moods. Often, there is violence. Just as often, there is tenderness. And, always, there is a sexual undercurrent. In one scene, the three boys are witness, after a bedtime bath, to their parents copulating against the bathroom sink; in another, an older boy lures them into his basement and plays a porn tape in which a father abuses his son; and – hinting at one boy’s eventual coming-out – he comments often on the fierce feel of his father’s muscle. By book’s end, the “we” of the title has shattered into an “I” and a “them,” as the narrator understands that his “pansy scent” has set him apart.
“Women of the Mean Streets: Lesbian Noir,” edited by J.M. Redmann and Greg Herren, Bold Strokes Books, 276 pages, $16.95 paper.
What this is: a collection of quite good (and several outstanding) short stories, most of them well-crafted mysteries. What this isn’t: the promised mean streets of “lesbian noir:” there aren’t as many hardboiled, rye-swilling private investigators or as many dark and dangerous urban alleyways as promised by the title. That said, Carson Tait’s “Boomerang,” about a lusty bounty hunter who falls hard for her amusingly named prey, Diamond Collier, hits all the right noir notes; Redmann’s own “Lost” features P.I. Mickey Knight – taking a 30-page detour from the author’s several mystery novels – is engaged by an annoying relative to sleuth the whereabouts of a sleazy cousin. Genres are mixed – but noir wins out – in Lindy Cameron’s science-fictional collection-closing story, “Feedback,” featuring a legless cybercop who “trawls the mean streets of Cy-city and the other virtual resorts – the ones that ordinary beat cops fear to tread.” Stories by Laura Lippman, Lori L. Lake, Victoria Brownworth and Miranda Kent also stand out – tough, creepy, eerie and intense tales, to be sure, dark-hued but not traditionally “noir.”
“At Home with Myself: Stories from the Hills of Turkey Hollow,” by David Mixner, 244 pages, $18 hardcover.
After decades of high-powered, sharp-elbowed political and cultural activism, gay and otherwise – Mixner advised electoral campaigns for the likes of George McGovern, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton – the author retreated, at 60, to a rural mountaintop home in the Catskills. These collected reflections and ruminations are the result. Some chapters dwell on the past: Mixner laments the AIDS deaths of friends, alludes to anti-homophobic fights, recalls the horror of both John F. Kennedy’s Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, and excoriates himself for screwing up the execution of vaunted peace walk across America. But most of the easygoing entries – some read like off-the-top-of-the-head blog postings or extended emails to friends – recount a relaxed, companionable rapport with country neighbors, country ways and changing seasons. Where once Mixner protested his old friend Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, he now celebrates Turkey Hollows’ annual Tractor Parade, commiserates with others at Johnny’s Barbershop about a summer heat wave and welcomes the departure, come September, of pushy summer residents. This is mellow Mixner, meditating on a life well lived.
“This grout is filthy.” The young man sat up, rubbed his head. “You’d think they would clean the grout.” His skin was the color of weak coffee. He put on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and surveyed Henry from head to foot. “Who are you?” “I’m Henry,” Henry said. “Really?” The young man’s lunular eyebrows lifted. “Are you sure?” Henry looked down at the palm of his right hand, as if that might be the place to find some irrefutable sign of Henryness. “Pretty sure.” The young man rose to his feet and, after peeling off one of bright-yellow gloves, pumped Henry’s hand warmly. “I was expecting someone bigger,” he explained. “Because of the baseball factor. My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.”
– from “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach
POET JOHN ASHBERY will receive the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2011 National Book Awards on November 16, an even hosted by actor John Lithgow… A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, the feminist bookstore that has been a Madison, WI downtown fixture since 1975, is merging with another Madison independent, Avol’s Bookstore, which specializes in used books. The woman’s bookstore will move into Avol’s space by August 2012, and used books will continue to be sold on consignment, complementing the women’s literature stock of A Room of One’s Own… BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: “A New Way to Be Human,” Robert Taylor’s story of fighting apartheid in his native South Africa and becoming the highest-ranking openly gay clergy in the Episcopal Church, with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is a May 2012 title from New Page… SARAH SCHULMAN’S “Salt on Green Almonds: Israel/Palestine and The Queer International,” a September 2012 title from Duke University Press, examines the emerging Palestinian LGBT movement and its impact on both the global LGBT community and the broad politics of the Middle East… NOVELIST ANNE TYLER is writing a foreword to “Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir” by Reynolds Price, who died in January while at work on the memoir, his fourth; it’s a May 2012 title from Scribner.