Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fieldingis an expansive, warmhearted work about ambition and its limits, about family, friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others. Harbach is a cofounder and coeditor of what Mary Karr calls, “The best goddamn literary magazine in America,” n+1.
A few months ago, I published my first novel, The Art of Fielding. It was a long time in the making – eleven years between conception and publication. When I began it, I was living in Boston, working odd jobs (temping, copyediting, assisting a psychotherapist) and writing at night--I’d produced a long string of unpublished stories and fragments before beginning the book. I’d been at it for a few years, and both the effort and the isolation were wearing me out. I felt bewildered and clueless, and progress was slow. I decided to apply to MFA programs.
I sent the first chapter of my yet-untitled novel to seven schools. Six rejected me. The seventh, miraculously, called to say Yes. And off I went, to the University of Virginia, sight unseen. I knew nothing about the place, but I imagined it to be bucolic, serious, and a whole lot cheaper than Boston, and I knew life wouldn’t touch me there.
I piled my stuff into my Jeep Comanche, headed south, and found an apartment. I was a Writer for real, and I was raring to go. A $9,000 stipend! And health insurance! For two years, nothing would distract me from my creative bliss. To celebrate, I went to Student Health for a checkup.
The intern told me it was nothing, called the urologist. The urologist told me it was nothing, called the radiologist. The radiologist told me how much he loved Horatio Hornblower, and then, turning to the ultrasound machine, said: “Uh-oh.”
I had testicular cancer, the best kind of cancer to have. They drew blood and told me to return in two weeks for my MRI, which would determine whether the cancer had spread. In my heart, of course, I already knew it had.
I walked out into the sunlight of the most beautiful possible September afternoon. I sat in my truck till sundown. Two weeks?
Long story short, I didn’t have cancer. But I didn’t learn this until two months later, when I had surgery to have my testicle removed, and groggily lifted an eyelid in the recovery room. A jockish young doctor gave me a thumbs-up. “Bro,” he said. “You kept them both.”
Those months had been a crash course in all sorts of things: the kindness of friends (who I told), and of strangers (who I didn’t), and how little comfort kindness can be when you’re alone in the dark in an unfamiliar apartment, brooding not only on your inevitable death but on how little you’d used your testicles. I wish I could always feel what I felt in the weeks after my surgery, when I blessed the universe hourly and swore to live each day like my last. That sentiment fades, of course, but I can call upon it sometimes. And when people ask my advice about MFA programs, I tell them they can learn a lot, though maybe not what they expected, and to always hold out for health insurance.