The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach
Many see sport as a metaphor for life, distilling the essentials into a manageable contest played out on a defined field, governed by accepted rules of play and conduct. This is to say, then, that you do not need to like or even know anything about baseball to enjoy Chad Harbach’s generally thoughtful and engaging novel about a young phenom and the lives he touches as he pursues his mission of being the best shortstop of all time, greater even than his hero and the author of the book he finds so inspirational, the fictional Aparicio Rodriguez and his equally fictional “The Art of Fielding.” For the novel, while very good on the subject of sport, is more about growing up, dealing with personal and group expectations, and working through your own shortcomings.
Reduced to its plot line, ballplayer for the small, Ivy-ish Westish College in Wisconsin Mike Schwartz recruits Henry Skrimshander. In Henry, under his tutelage, Mike sees the makings of a great ballplayer, and, perhaps, in Henry’s wake, a bit of glory for himself. Together, the two transform the otherwise mopey Westish team into a college championship contender. Even president Guert Affenlight, a man in his sixties with a strong intellectual bent, begins showing up for games. For him, the attraction is twofold: the game and Henry’s roommate Owen Dunne. After a marriage, widowhood, and raising a rebellious daughter, Pella, Affenlight discovers latent desires stirring and attempts as discreetly as possible to act on his desires. Fermenting the brew more, Pella walks out on her controlling husband, going to Westish to deal both with her breakup, her father, and the wayward direction of her life.
Each character sets expectations for him- or herself, but no more grander than Henry and Mike. As often happens in real life, high expectations fail to materialize. So, it’s giving nothing away to reveal that Henry loses his mojo and Mike inflicts failure upon himself by proceeding with a plan he knows cannot work; that Affenlight suffers consequences; and that Pella gropes for traction. The crux here is how each comes to terms with their diminished prospects, as well as their triumphs.
Harbach manages to toss in, mainly via Affenlight, many references to nineteenth-century American authors, like Melville, whom he has written about, and Emerson, who figures into the seaman’s farewell to Affenlight. And though this is his debut novel and suffers from wordiness, length, and devices to drive the reader along, it does have the special merit of allowing the story to end with us wondering how all ultimately will work out for the characters. Asked about this by interviewer Alex Shephard on Full Stop, Harbach explained, “…I was writing the ending in a way that I felt was true to the book and what had gone before, but it was also very different from a lot of good novels of recent years, which tend to disintegrate a little more in the latter stages.”
If you are among the few who have not read The Art of Fielding, perhaps because you believe it’s just another sports novel or baseball simply isn’t your thing, you really should reconsider. Harbach will surprise you, and you may gain an entirely new appreciation of what goes into achieving greatness and how to deal with disappointment. w/c