THE CATCH, by Alison Fairbrother
Writers have forever used objects as a tool by which to tell their stories — Hawthorne’s letter, Maupassant’s necklace, Hammett’s falcon. Follow the bouncing crown, I was taught, as a way to understand the structure of Shakespeare’s history plays. The literary object, at its most effective, is a powerful revealer of character — telling us about the people who possess it and those who covet it; those who are drawn to it and those who are repelled by it; those who deem it meaningless and those who endow it with outsize importance.
In Alison Fairbrother’s warm and funny debut novel, “The Catch,” the revelatory tools are a baseball and a tie rack. With these items, Fairbrother aims to illuminate the character of Eleanor Adler — the 24-year-old narrator struggling with the death of her beguiling father and coming to terms with his legacy.
The novel opens with this line: “My father, a minor poet, celebrated holidays out of season.” The father is James, iconoclastic and charming, a man who has experienced little success in the material world (he has a single well-known poem) but is beloved by those close to him, perhaps especially by his eldest daughter, Ellie. (The opening line refers to the fact that James celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter with his four children from three different marriages in the summer, when he has custody.)
James is the kind of man to invent a drink called a “razzleberry fring frong,” to describe Washington, D.C., as “that sybaritic city” of bloviators, to give away his watch to an employee in a grocery store on a whim. In the first chapter he and Ellie engage in competitive wordplay, his wife cooks the Thanksgiving turkey in a bikini, his middle daughters, Sadie and Anna, roll their eyes at him — and he throws his prized possession, his baseball, back and forth with his son, Van, who is named for Van Morrison.
The scene might seem a bit too idiosyncratically quaint if Fairbrother didn’t temper Ellie’s adoration of her father with some healthy ambivalence. She both worships him and understands how frustratingly boyish he is; she wants to confide in him and she wants to conceal herself from his judgment; she believes she is his favorite child, but feels uncomfortable when he praises her above her siblings.
Her place in James’s affection is thrown into question after his sudden death at the age of 52. Despite having few possessions and no savings, James did have the foresight to draft a will, in which he leaves a small array of precious and meaningful objects to his family: his record collection to his son, a painting to his wife, his hats to Sadie, his Jerry Lewis movies to Anna. Ellie is certain that she will inherit the treasured baseball. Instead she receives a glow-in-the-dark tie rack, and the baseball goes to a mysterious stranger.
The importance of the baseball is linked to James’s most famous poem, “The Catch.” And in both the poem and the novel, the title’s meaning mutates as the truth about the baseball, and therefore her father, continues to unfold. Early on, Ellie quotes James saying that a poem is a way to say “maybe.” That word guides her as she attempts to understand why she was left what she considers a “gag gift” instead of a storied memento. Maybe this is the answer, she thinks, as she researches the baseball’s intended recipient; maybe this is the man, she considers, as she learns more about her father’s past.
After the funeral and the disappointing inheritance, Ellie returns to Washington, where she works for a start-up news organization and lives in a “social justice themed” group house with several ambitious roommates in their 20s. Fairbrother worked as a journalist in D.C., and her writing about the culture of the place is some of the most entertaining in the novel — perceptive, wry and witty. In an interview, Ellie says, “I moved to D.C. so I could use impact as a verb”; she describes certain colleagues as the type of men who are always fixing bicycles and making “frequent, reverential references to John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima.’”
Ellie is in a relationship with Lucas, an older, married man whose presence complicates one of the most interesting motifs in “The Catch”: the conundrum of male charisma. Fairbrother acknowledges the way charisma can be a smoke screen for darkness and an excuse for some fairly reprehensible behavior. She also nods at the pleasure of a certain kind of charm — a quality that many people, including the ones who surrounded James, might not have wanted to resist. Read: Despite our better judgment, we might know a man is flawed and still find him fun. When it comes to Lucas, Ellie is hungry for the thrill a delightful man can give; with youthful self-absorption she attempts to ignore the inconvenient facts of his wife, his age and his overeagerness to jump into bed with her. Their relationship is drawn with such sensuality and endearment that we are also willing to ignore these facts, rooting for them even as the discomfiting reality of his circumstance lingers in the background.
Fairbrother delineates Ellie’s mind following her father’s death — her obsessive thinking, her attempts to distract herself, her subsequent plunges back into the reality of loss — with well-wrought observation of the rhythm and patterns of grief. Once returned to her life, Ellie is haunted by the question of the baseball, so she manipulates a new work assignment in order to fit her quest to learn more about James — a questionable decision that results in relatively minor consequences for herself, but major ones for the people who surround her. Ellie’s careless behavior represents an underexplored and therefore exciting investigation into a family dynamic — one in which a daughter responds to her father’s reckless entitlement not by shrinking into herself, by becoming ultra-virtuous or self-destructive, but by acting out with similar reckless entitlement in turn.
Though the mystery of the baseball and tie rack leads us through the plot, I found myself wishing the objects played a lesser part. The neatness of that journey and Fairbrother’s steady movement toward closure feel at odds with the strength of this book, which is the depiction of a smart, talented and sexual young woman who is in the process of learning, as adults must, to balance pride with humility, pain with pleasure, and acceptable fictions with uncomfortable truths.
Julia May Jonas is the author of “Vladimir.”
THE CATCH, by Alison Fairbrother | 288 pp. | Random House | $27