Review by Matthew Simmons
Years ago, after reading Richard Russo’s Mohawk, I decided I needed more flexibility in labeling fiction. Obviously, there was pulp, there was genre fiction, and there was the rarified air of “lit-tra-ture.” But what I’d found in Mohawk seemed to somehow occupy parts of all of those labels simultaneously and effortlessly. I needed a name for this effortless occupation of different registers, and it came to me halfway through another, similar book. What I was reading was, in fact, the Great American Middlebrow Novel. Such is a book that tries to be more than an afternoon or a weekend’s entertainment; nevertheless, its writing is highly readable. It does not set out to explore the eternal complexities of the human experience, but rather tries to show the suppleness and myriad realities that make up an individual or a group’s experience of a specific place, at a particular time. That last bit is incredibly important. The GAMN is a book of specificities, of particularities, and it plumbs these specificities and particularities to give us some access to the localized truths of a moment. J. Mark Hart’s forthcoming debut novel, Fielder’s Choice, tries its damnedest to show itself as worthy of the title, and succeeds, with varying degrees of success, at achieving this goal.
Hart’s locale and moment are Birmingham, 1969. Brad Williams, our narrator, wants to avoid the hellish fires of the steel mills. But there is a fate worse than the mills also possibly awaiting him: the jungles of Vietnam. Working class, his only hopes at escape are for his athletic prowess on the baseball diamond to win him a college scholarship, as well as drawing a high draft number. The first of these hopes is immediately compromised—a lifetime shortstop, senior year finds Brad moved over to second to accommodate Robbie, a black student transferred to West Lake High via integration, who is a superior shortstop to Brad in every way.
And thus are the specifics of Hart’s novel—a Birmingham trying to live down the specter of Bull Connor’s hoses and dogs, and a young man trying to find his place in this uncertain newness. At its best, Fielder’s Choice does a truly wonderful job of presenting a city struggling to understand itself and an 18-year-old boy trying both to fit into this city and get out of it. Hart’s presentation of Brad is, in many ways, wonderfully well-done. Similarly, the city’s tensions are admirably sketched, and Birmingham, as a character itself, feels incredibly alive and compelling. Hart’s debut novel thus promises to join the august company of the Great American Middlebrow novel, an achievement to be lauded—especially when the author, an attorney by day, is only moonlighting as a novelist.
Promising though it may be, Fielder’s Choice is also, at times, deeply problematic. The prose can be clunky and wooden: explaining his friend’s father’s drinking habits, Brad speaks of “[the father’s] customary can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, or, in his vernacular, a ‘PBR.’” Contrast that passage with any number of gorgeous moments from Brad’s courtship of Susie and you’ll find yourself frustrated—Hart can, at times, be an immensely lyrical and even beautiful writer, and you’ll wish he always was. But significantly more troubling than some hiccups with the prose is the novel’s reliance on flat, stereotypical characters. Of course the hippie would be a Yankee, and of course he would drive a VW with a day-glo peace sign on the back window. Of course the main antagonist would be named Bubba, and would be a violent, reactionary, bigoted redneck. Robbie, the African-American shortstop who forces Brad to move positions, often seems like little more than a plot device and a means for developing Brad’s character—a shame and even an error, as Robbie begins as one of the most promising characters in the novel.
And while Paxton, the Yankee hippie, becomes more sympathetic as the novel progresses, it is not because his character deepens, but because Brad becomes more involved in the anti-war movement. Meanwhile, the Bubbas of the novel are never any more than boogeymen, “hicks,” to use Brad’s distressingly frequent verbiage, who wave the Confederate flag and stand in the way of progress. Near the novel’s end, Brad glowing speaks of Birmingham moving into the “New South,” and we understand that Brad understands Bubba and his ilk not so much as people as impediments to the birth of this “New South.” Brad’s voice thus carries a nascent sense of cosmopolitan elitism. And while I see this as a legitimate and even necessary act of characterization, I’m nevertheless troubled that Brad gets off scot-free in this regard. The Bubbas of the novel, and of Southern history, are of course inexcusably wrong in their racial attitudes and certainly on the wrong side of history. But this does not make them any less complexly human, something that Brad never recognizes, and something Hart never calls him to task for. We cannot present a fully nuanced picture of the South at this time—which is, again, what I think Hart wants to do—if we merely write off the Bubbas of the world, wrong-headed and misguided as they may be, as merely villainous “hicks” resembling Snively Whiplash more than flawed human beings.
This not to denigrate how fine the novel is on the whole. Brad himself is a deeply compelling and well-realized hero. Susie, Brad’s love interest and female counterpart, helps to Hart’s exploration of 1969 Birmingham in sophisticated ways, and Susie and Brad’s relationship is at turns soaring, titillating, crushingly painful, and immensely familiar to us all. Hart presents the changing relationships between Brad and his childhood best friend BJ, as well as between Brad and his father, powerfully and complexly. Brad, and those characters closest to him, are wonderfully rendered, strongly presented, and, at times, heart-wrenchingly achieved.
This is all to say that Fielder’s Choice is a novel of real promise, despite some significant problems. Mr. Hart has given us a very fine representation of a boy becoming a man in a place and time that are immensely complicated, and we are moved to joy and frustration alongside Brad. It is a deeply enjoyable novel, one I found myself tearing through in three days—no short task for a nearly 500-page book. And while it has its problems—the writing is sometimes too flat, the characters often too stock, the ending perhaps too neat—I am amazed, again, that this is a first novel by a man whose vocation is not fiction. And while the problems may keep Mr. Hart’s first novel from being a Great American Middlebrow Novel, it comes mighty close. Ultimately, Fielder’s Choice is a very good book about a very complex time. I’m a fan.