Chad Harbach. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris. Chad Harbach is pretty much homeless. Not live-on-the-streets homeless but couch-hopping homeless, the kind of transience that makes sending him anything via snail mail essentially useless. He has no kids and no spouse. His sole attachment seems to be to literature. After college and years of city-jumping that […]


Chad Harbach. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Chad Harbach is pretty much homeless. Not live-on-the-streets homeless but couch-hopping homeless, the kind of transience that makes sending him anything via snail mail essentially useless. He has no kids and no spouse. His sole attachment seems to be to literature.

After college and years of city-jumping that took him to both coasts, the Midwest and even a bit south, Harbach started what would become a decade-long project – The Art of Fielding, a baseball-themed book that launched this English major and sometime copy editor into literary fame and fortune. “Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000” read a Bloomberg piece from March 2010. News of the stunning sale spread quickly, and the price was actually higher than initially reported, clocking in at $665,000.

As advance copies started to circulate, buzz for Fielding intensified. An Aug. 29 issue of Sports Illustrated devoted six pages to the book, and New York Magazine previewed it in August as well, all before the 512-page novel reached bookstore shelves. Since hitting said shelves in September, it’s been the subject of dozens of positive reviews, excerpts in magazines and full-blown feature stories. Probably no novel landed on more best-of year-end lists for 2011, including that of illustrious New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, who declared that the novel “zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics” in a review. Harbach has been compared by critics to the “heaviest hitters of contemporary fiction,” GQ noted.

That has focused enormous attention on Harbach, who has somehow managed to remain rather anonymous as a person. The 36-year-old Racine native is soft-spoken and articulate even with the ums, half-finished sentences and pauses. He’s a strange mix of Midwestern values, a Harvard education and years as a broke New Yorker, but even those descriptors break down into a stew of contradictions.

“He’s an enigma. It’s a little difficult for us to relate to him,” says childhood friend Jeff Wilkens, referring to Harbach’s Wisconsin friends who opted for more traditional life paths. “His goal in life was never to work. His goal was to be a writer.”

CHAD HARBACH STARTED READING at age 3. “Before he was 4, he could pretty much read anything you put in front of him,” says Tammy Harbach, Chad’s mom and a retired Montessori school administrator. “There was a time when it was hard taking him to the library because there was kind of nothing left.”

At 4, he started writing.

“He’d get ahold of a topic,” says Russ Harbach, Chad’s dad.

“Like birds. He’d write pages about birds,” Tammy says. “We referred to them as information books. Little books with facts.”

By 5, Chad was dreaming of attending Harvard University (“It was the school in the movies,” he says.) and calculating batting averages. His Montessori school “kind of didn’t know what to do with him,” Tammy says. “They suggested moving him on.” Chad started first grade at Sacred Heart Catholic School a year early at age 5.

After that, his parents resisted that school’s efforts to move him up further. “It was a choice of do you just zoom him through school, or let him have a normal childhood?” Tammy says quickly, almost defensively.

Although a year younger than his classmates, little Chad consistently outpaced them academically. “He’s always been the smartest kid in the class, one of the brightest people you’d know,” says childhood friend Jason Pettit.

Dorothy Bittner taught Chad math from fifth to eighth grade and was amazed at his ability to do problems in his head. “Sometimes, I don’t think he knew how he got the answer,” she says. “He was probably the smartest math student that I had. Ever.”

Chad participated in scholastic competitions and “pretty much single-handedly won for our school every year,” says Sue Sprague, Chad’s eighth-grade science teacher. She required her students keep a notebook with assignments and labs. In the margins of Chad’s were doodles, “political fish stories,” he called them. “The comments were so clever,” Sprague says. “They had to do with whatever issues were going on in the world.”

High school at St. Catherine’s was just as easy for Chad. He was the valedictorian and voted “most likely to succeed.” And when he was accepted to Harvard on early admission, no one blinked an eye. “It would have been more of a surprise if he had not gotten in,” Russ says.

But the super-smart academic was anything but savvy about the wider world. “I didn’t know anything about anything,” Chad says. “The Internet didn’t exist. So I kind of just applied to Harvard because I was like,  ‘Oh, that’s the best school.’ I was very naïve about the whole thing.

Upon arrival in Cambridge, Mass., the naïveté didn’t subside. Just 17 years old, Chad immediately felt out of his element. “They were so much more sophisticated,” he says of his peers. “I had barely been outside Wisconsin.” And then there was money. “I didn’t understand class distinctions, how rich everybody was. Growing up, everyone I knew was sort of the same middle class.”

Adding to his estrangement, back in Racine, no one understood what Harvard was like. “Academically, I really liked Harvard an awful lot,” Harbach says. “Pretty much in every other regard, the first couple years were very distressing.”

These feelings surface in The Art of Fielding, which takes place in Westish, Wis., a fictional town that boasts Westish College and its struggling baseball team, the Harpooners. The main character, Henry Skrimshander, a shy, scrawny shortstop from South Dakota, struggles to fit in from the onset. Henry never completely overcomes his social hurdles, but Chad did. He ultimately made friends at Harvard despite the unease of his early years.

And he chose English as his major. “I suspect he had his plan all along,” Pettit says. Not really, says Harbach: “I had this vague idea that I wanted to be a writer but kind of had no idea how to go about it.” Reading was a passion, so he gravitated in that direction.

“I started reading to Chad when he was a day old,” his mother says. And once he started, he didn’t stop. “I read an immense amount,” Chad says. He would hide away in his room, tearing through novels and asking for more time when told to go to bed. Roald Dahl was a favorite, but his parents also remember C.S. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, well before the movies existed. “He was always content to be alone,” Tammy says. “Even from the earliest age, he could entertain himself quite easily.”

“He’s too smart for his own good,” Wilkens says.

Much like Chad, his novel has an intellectual brilliance, but also a kind of innocence that gives it the classic, old-fashioned feeling of The Great American Novel. Harbach spent 10 years writing the book, mentally immersed in the world of college. And he still seems to live the easy, unconnected life of a collegian.

At first glance, the balding writer looks his age. But he’s fit, with a youthful, rather athletic physique. He played backyard ball as early as 18 months, says Russ, and at 5, started organized sports with T-ball. He’d go on to play basketball, golf, tennis and baseball. Baseball was his favorite, and shortstop and second base were his positions. As a good luck charm, he kept a baseball card of his favorite shortstop in his cap – Billy Spiers, a 1987 first-round draft pick for the Brewers.

Chad was smaller because he was a year younger than his teammates, but he found ways to compensate. “He would go out in the driveway and shoot hoops for hours,” Tammy says.

“Chad’s a very competitive person,” Pettit says. “He was always scrappy.”

Chad phrases it differently. “I was a good athlete and very coordinated. Like Henry, I was pretty small.”

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Unlike Henry, Chad didn’t progress past high school with team sports. But sports never left him. He picked up martial arts in college and reached brown belt. And trips home during the summer often included Brewers games and tailgating with his old friends. But his novel approaches sports on a deeper level. Harbach took his childhood passion, combined it with his immense intellect and crafted a story around it. This surfaces most notably in the book within the book, The Art of Fielding, written by Aparicio Rodriguez, a fictional retired St. Louis Cardinal and “the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived.” Passages are philosophical and educational, and for Henry, they’re the gospel.

3. There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.

33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.

If anyone could succeed in living a life of thoughtless being, it might be Chad Harbach.

A NOVEL’S GEOGRAPHIC SETTING can be a crucial factor. Wisconsin was the easiest choice, Harbach says, “because I know so much about it. Even though I lived in Boston for a lot of years, New York for a lot of years, Virginia for several years, I don’t know any of those places as well.”

The Wisconsin of The Art of Fielding, however, often seems more theoretical than real. There’s a shopping trip to a mall in Door County, with no city mentioned. The baseball team flies out of an airport in Green Bay, the baseball coach commutes from Milwaukee, and there’s mention of a ferry – but located where? For that matter, where is Westish? “It’s just a little bit south of Door County on the lake side,” Harbach says. “It’s not on the bay. It’s actually on the lake.” In short, where you wouldn’t find a college in real life.

Ryan Braun is mentioned in the text, one of the only details that places the book in a time period. The Brewers, however, are far from prominent. The Cardinals are referenced much more often.

But for Harbach, the location seems less about Wisconsin than the Midwest. “It’s this middle meeting place where you have characters from very different origins,” he says. The college itself feels almost idyllic, like an Ivy League college. Like Harvard. “Well, that sounds bad in a way,” Harbach says.

But he concedes the point: “There’s a lot in the book that’s based on my college experience. Harvard’s not that big of a school. So in a way, I’m taking that experience and importing it into Westish.”

Literature and the art of reading ground the novel, more so than geography. Henry’s roommate and teammate Owen Dunne reads in the dugout during games, Westish President Guert Affenlight is a Herman Melville scholar (Harbach took a Melville course at Harvard), and in a wry touch, Melville is portrayed as having a historical connection to the college. So the school erects a statue in Melville’s honor and names the baseball team the Harpooners. Moby Dick references abound.

Harbach himself seems as unrooted as his novel. His mom is from Racine, his dad’s from Kenosha, and both have declared themselves not city people. They raised their three children – Chad, Heidi and Peter – on Independence Road in a middle-class Racine subdivision. “Pretty typical suburbia,” Tammy says.

Chad’s parents are the sort of people who stay busy. Both semi-retired, Russ has a part-time accountant gig and grows vegetables on his brother’s farm; mom sells the vegetables at the farmers market. Dad brews beer and judges brewing competitions; mom tastes the beer, though it’s not her drink of choice. Dad’s a black belt; mom’s quick to explain the out-of-the-ordinary martial arts organization he belongs to.

They are smart and soft-spoken with a wonderful sense of humor, but there’s a certain casualness to their style. Although Chad started attending Harvard at age 17, once mom helped him move there, they never visited him at college, only going for his graduation four years later.

The Harbach children all moved elsewhere. Heidi lives in Seattle, Peter near Appleton and Chad, well, wherever the wind blows him. “I have vague plans to move back to New York,” he says, “but I’m not in any one place long enough right now for it to really matter where I’m living.”

Chad began drifting as soon as he graduated from Harvard.

“There was no plan,” Tammy says.

“I didn’t hear one,” Russ continues.

At 21, Chad lived in Racine and worked at a now-defunct publishing company, starting as a freelance copy editor and getting “tricked,” he says, into working full time. “I did it for a year, and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ ”

He went west to San Francisco and found it enjoyable but knew he didn’t want to stay. He left and headed east to New York, moving in with college friend Keith Gessen (who wrote a story on Harbach and trends in book publishing for Vanity Fair) and Gessen’s then-wife, living on their couch in Queens. “It was a very romantic time,” Harbach says with a laugh. “I was kind of just bumming around.

Move No. 3 took him back to Cambridge, where he lived for a couple years and held a number of odd jobs, including one for a briefly promising startup. “This was when a lot of my classmates from college were making tons of money in Internet 1.0,” Harbach says. “It was the era of people giving you $10 million just because you’re kind of cute.” But that dream crashed, and he next tried a job as an assistant to a psychotherapist.

In 2001, Harbach did what he always swore he wouldn’t do – applied to MFA programs. “And what I applied with was actually some of the first stuff I wrote of the book,” he says. “As long ago as that, I was working on it.” Harbach was rejected everywhere, except for one school – the University of Virginia, where he received a full fellowship. “So I was like, ‘All right, you’re going to UVA.’ ” Off to Charlottesville he went.

The program could have been completed in two years, but he opted for three, and wrote bits and pieces of Fielding along the way. “I don’t think it was the most productive writing period of my life,” he says. There’s something about an MFA program, he says, “that can make you very unserious.” There was the drinking, socializing, not having a day job (“It’s like the college I never went to.”), but more than that, it was the structure of a graduate program. “When you write a novel, it’s a very slow process. You have to do it every day and not think too much about how it’s going, and that’s really hard to do with a workshop.”

In 2004, MFA in hand, he and a few friends (Gessen included) helped launch a new endeavor: n+1, a literary magazine. “When I graduated, we were just getting the magazine going,” he says. He was in New York a fair amount that summer and then spent close to six months back in Racine, moving to Brooklyn in 2005. They ran n+1 out of their apartment in Prospect Heights but did not collect paychecks. Even with other copy editing jobs, it wasn’t sustainable. “I had no money,” he says. This was the life he led for the next five years. As friends back home settled down, Harbach was still in transition, doing copy editing jobs, working at the magazine and puttering along on the book.

“He’s the kind of guy who you thought might become a freeloader,” Wilkens says, quick to note he doesn’t mean that negatively. “The joke was always that Chad was going to live above Jason’s garage because he wasn’t going to be able to support himself.”

JEFF WILKENS HAS BEEN FRIENDS with Harbach since seventh grade: That’s 25 years. Still, “It’s really difficult to have a serious conversation with him,” Wilkens says. “He turns everything into a joke.”

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As kids, they’d banter back and forth. The talk wasn’t substantive. But the joking and non-responses (“He’d be a good politician in that way,” Wilkens says.) continued into adulthood. Texting is the medium of choice. “If he ever picked up the phone and gave me a call, I think I would lose it,” Wilkens says. Over the past year, they’ve talked more, mostly via text. “Even though I’ve known him for a long time, I still feel like I don’t know him that well.”

Harbach’s friends live a far different life than him. “Most of us have a 9-to-5, jobs with benefits, 401ks,” Pettit says. “We all got married, had kids. It’s harder to relate to Chad as we’ve gotten older. No one really knows what he’s doing.”

Harbach has friends in Milwaukee, friends from Harvard, friends in New York, and, “He always seems to be living with different people,” Wilkens says. Harbach is fun company, gregarious and sharp with a dry sense of humor. “He’s a very likeable guy,” Wilkens adds. “He’s got lots of friends.”

But he’s always quite unattached. “I’ve heard about Chad’s girlfriends. I don’t know that I’ve ever met one of them,” Wilkens says.

From 2004 to 2009, Harbach was living in New York, working tirelessly on the novel and the magazine, and most of his friends had little idea what his life was like. “I would see his mom occasionally in Racine, and she would kind of roll her eyes and say, ‘Oh yeah, Chad’s still working on this novel,’ ” Wilkens says. “No one ever thought this thing would get done.”

Periodically, Harbach would return home and spend days at Wilson’s Coffee & Tea in Racine working on the novel. Mom would stop in for coffee breaks, rejoicing in the chance to see her oldest. (She and his father never visited Chad in New York.) But Chad wasn’t quick to offer insight into the book.

“We knew baseball,” Tammy says.

“In the vaguest of terms,” Russ adds.

“In a small college,” Tammy adds. “We didn’t know much.”

In 2009, as the book edged toward completion, Harbach started to send it to agents. Rejections began until a then-27-year-old agent named Chris Parris-Lamb took interest. What ensued was a complete whirlwind – a $175,000 preemptive offer, followed by meetings with several editors and a two-day telephone auction, which rose from an initial bid of $110,000 and shot up to $750,000 by Scribner. Little, Brown was the second-highest at $665,000, and that company offered an incentive – Michael Pietsch, who edited David Foster Wallace, would personally edit The Art of Fielding. With that, the decision was made. Fielding went to Little, Brown for $665,000.

Word of the sale and accompanying price spread quickly, but it wasn’t Harbach spreading the news. “I had run into his mom and found out he sold his book,” Pettit says. “It’s just crazy.”

In the fall of 2010, Harbach moved to Charlottesville to spend the next five months editing Fielding. In September 2011, it reached bookstores. In New York for Labor Day weekend, Harbach watched the reviews appear online. The Times, Slate and The New Yorker were first, and they were over-the-top positive. “They just all cascaded out one hour after another,” he says of that Monday afternoon. “I wound up spending the whole day sitting there with my laptop being like, ‘Holy shit.’ ”

As friends and family started to dive into the book, they looked for glimpses of Harbach but didn’t find much. Tammy noted how Henry is a smaller guy who needs encouragement, which reminds her of Chad. But she also sees her son in a way few would pick up on. As Owen develops a connection to President Affenlight, he stops in his office daily, lies down on a couch, and listens to Affenlight read aloud. “To me, the most significant Chad-like thing is that reading, that’s sort of their comfort. Reading is Chad’s comfort.”

But at no point has anyone pointed to a character, scene or setting and said, “That’s so Chad.” He’s almost invisible in his 512-page novel. “It is really weird to read this thing by a guy you’ve known essentially your entire life,” says Pettit, noting that he expected Harbach to ooze off the pages. “And he doesn’t.”

IT’S THURSDAY, Oct. 20, 2011, the second night of the World Series, a game Harbach had desperately hoped the Brewers would play, and he’s having dinner at Café Hollander on the East Side. At 7 p.m., he’s scheduled to read from The Art of Fielding at nearby Boswell Books.

At five minutes to 7, Harbach’s mom says, “Chad, don’t you think you should get going?”

But there was still a half a beer in front him. “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine,” Chad replies.

After another 5 to 10 minutes, Chad gets up and leaves. “We all kind of looked at each other. No money left, and the bill had just come. Typical Chad,” says Wilkens with a laugh. “Here’s a guy who’s just gotten paid close to a million dollars when you count U.S. and international advances, and he stiffed us all for dinner.”

At Boswell, there’s a standing-room-only crowd. As Harbach reaches the podium, he’s book-less, so he borrows one from an audience member in the first row, a crisp new copy. “I hadn’t seen this yet!” he says excitedly, noticing the slightly altered cover design, which has a dash of red. “They told me about it.”

He’s dressed a bit professorial with collegian touches, in a navy blue blazer and gray sweater with a plaid shirt underneath. The upturned shirt cuffs reveal a camouflage print, and a pair of brightly colored socks in a checkered pattern hides beneath navy slacks and khaki loafers.

Harbach opens the book, turns to Chapter 3, Page 25, and starts reading. It’s the Thanksgiving chapter, and he’s building toward a conversation between Henry and Owen.

“We’re going shopping,” said Owen.

“Oh, cool. Have fun.”

“The we is inclusive. Please put on your shoes.”

“Oh, ha, that’s OK,” Henry said. “I’m not much of a shopper.”

“But you’re not not a master of litotes,” Jason said. Lie-toe-tease. Henry repeated it to himself, so that he could look it up later. “When we get back I’m burning those jeans.”

“What’s wrong with these jeans?” Henry looked down at his legs. It wasn’t a rhetorical question: there was clearly something wrong with his jeans. He’d realized as much since arriving at Westish, just as he’d realized there was something wrong with his shoes, his hair, his backpack, and everything else. But he didn’t know quite what it was. The way the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow, he had only one for jeans.

As jeans leaves Harbach’s mouth, the packed house chuckles. When he finishes the scene entirely, chuckles are traded for full-blown laughs. Harbach reads through two chapters this fall evening, employing slight voice changes and bringing the characters to life. He’s animated, self-assured and genuinely happy to be among a handful of friends and family members, as well as a room full of strangers.

After the reading, Harbach signs books and answer questions, which always leads to the inevitable, “Now what?” “Everywhere I go, people are like, ‘When’s your next book coming out?’ I’m like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

Twelve years past forming the original idea for Fielding, Chad Harbach’s a totally different person. He’s long beyond the issues of youth, college and budding adulthood, so his next book is likely to be quite different. He does have notes and ideas and thoughts swirling. But the pressure is immense. Everyone will be watching. And Harbach senses that.

“I don’t know how you follow it up.”

Cristina Daglas is managing editor for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to her at cristina.daglas@milwaukeemag.com.

 

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