I actually read this some time ago but didn’t feel that any review I might write could do the book justice. I was a little daunted to say the least. One of the more impressive books I’ve read in a long time. Here goes anyway.
The Art of Fielding; by Chad Harbach, 512 pages, Hachette Book Group, 2011.
For Henry Skrimshander, a chance to play Major League baseball is only a few slick plays from his grasp. It’s what the small college shortstop has worked tirelessly for, what he’s dreamed about. He’s raised catching the ground ball and firing to first base into an epic poem. And in the process lifted a moribund collegiate baseball program to heights no one could have imagined.
And then …
This is the story at the heart of Chad Harbach’s astonishing first novel, “The Art of Fielding.” But of course, it’s not really about just that. Baseball more than any other athletic endeavor inspires so much more from its writers. Harbach’s tale takes a circuitous and marvelously written route to finally land upon themes all share: Longing, desperation and finally, a sense of belonging. A need in every way, to reach home.
In the tradition of the finest baseball novelists like Thomas Harris (“The Southpaw” “Bang the Drum Slowly”) and W.P. Kinsella (“Shoeless Joe,” “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy”), Harbach uses the game to mine more deeply into what makes us all human. And like the fiction of John Irving there is a sense of quirky detachment at play. It creates an otherworldly quality that sharply defines these charming characters into three-dimensional people struggling for purchase in a world where nothing seems to exactly fit — including the characters themselves.
Harbach, a Wisconsin native educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia, sets “The Art of Fielding” at fictional Westish College, a tiny school in “the baseball glove that is Wisconsin.” Nicknamed the Harpooners, the school’s claim to fame is that Herman Melville might have stopped there once. It has a decent academic reputation owing to well-respected college president Guert Affenlight — but almost no history of success in athletics. That is, until Mike Schwartz arrives on campus.
It is Schwartz, the kid with a hardscrabble past in Chicago and bereft of family, who sees Skrimshander at an American Legion baseball tournament and becomes enchanted and then transfixed by the scrawny teen’s prowess with a glove at shortstop. He recruits him to Westish to join the team of baseballing Harpooners.
From there, Schwartz makes it his goal to train Henry into a player worthy of playing baseball at the highest level and at the same time guide the Harpooners to previously unattainable heights. It’s a fixation that becomes an almost unbearable emotional burden that finally takes a physical toll in an unexpected way on Skrimshander while wrecking the once solid psyche of Schwartz — team captain in both baseball and football and de facto big man on this tiny campus.
Harbach interweaves several intriguing story lines that thread seemlessly. Affenlight not only has to handle the return of his daughter after a failed marriage but also his own yearning that leads to a relationship that’s taboo on many levels. He becomes recklessly bromantically involved with a student, a path that’s fraught with deep and yawning pits.
The relationships between Schwartz and Skrimshander; Affenlgiht and the student become central features in a book alive with metaphors. In fact, Skrimshander keeps a tattered copy of a book written by his baseball hero, the great but fictional St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. It offers insights about the job of an infielder such as “The shortstop is the source of stillness in the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond” The name of the fictional book? “The Art of Fielding,.”
Similarly great passages and insights emerge from nearly every page. Harbach writes with relentless eloquence and never allows the tale to become bogged down in dead-end plot lines. Delightful, thoughtful and profoundly sad surprises lurk within each chapter.
“The Art of Fielding” is an ambitious book about what some might think a trivial subject. But like the most noteworthy fiction generated around baseball its lofty goals have a way of catching readers by surprise. And unlike nearly all works of fiction it never disappoints.