I think 33 people recommended that I read “The Art of Fielding.” At one point, I came home from work and told Becky that yet another a colleague had urged me to read it. She fumed for a few seconds and reminded me that she had emailed me about that very same book a few months prior. Whoops. Anyway, let me first thank the 33 people, and especially my wife Becky, for telling me about this book.
It was fantastic.
I was very worried that all of the buzz for this book was publishing hype and that the personal recommendations were so exceptional that ultimately I’d be disappointed by the story. I wasn’t. This book was THAT good. I’ll try to explain why, but this will probably be one of those reviews where it would be better if you just went to your nearest independent bookstore and handed over your VISA.
The author, Chad Harbach, is the founder of n+1, a hip Brooklyn literary magazine (n+1 published a despicable and ill-informed piece on Cincinnati a few months ago, but I won’t hold that against them). “The Art of Fielding” is his first novel. In a subplot, Harbach had a difficult time publishing this book, and that story is the subject of another e-book called “How a Book is Born.” I may review that sometime soon, or I may just wallow in it, wondering if one day I’ll ever be able to publish something, given the cutthroat and insular publishing world that exists today.
To say the story is about collegiate shortstop Henry Skrimshander, as do many reviewers, is factually correct, but is also insufficient. Skrimshander is merely one of five characters that are richly developed and are each as essential to the novel as is the shortstop. The other characters are Henry’s gay roommate Owen, Henry’s mentor and life-guide Mike, the Westish College president Guert Affenlight, and Guert’s daughter Pella.
And to say this is a baseball novel is also factually correct. Indeed, the baseball games are described gracefully, as if by a Bob Costas or a George Will. But “baseball novel” is also inadequate. You could hate baseball and still love this story. Because, for fear of sounding like a cliché, this is ultimately a story about five human beings, tortured by love, fear, and most terribly, self-doubt.
Very briefly, you should know that Skrimshander is a phenom, about to break his hero’s record for most games without an error, when suddenly things go awry. Henry throws a ball to first and instead it goes into the dugout, hard, and strikes Owen in the face. This is the moment that sets the rest of the novel in motion.
Owen and Guert commence an affair. Mike comes apart, mentally and physically. And Pella tries to restart her life by returning to Westish. There are wonderful sub-plots and relationships between all of the characters. Each character is forced to face the fact that the premise on which their life has been lived is shaky at best. To recap the story here would be a disservice to those who might choose to read this book. Instead, let me just touch on a few themes I especially enjoyed.
I loved that college is portrayed as it should be: tumultuous and thrilling and terrific. For many, the emotions felt in a dorm or a lecture hall are so much more intense than the emotions in an apartment building or a board room. It’s the setting where we learn the most about ourselves and about how to interact with others in close quarters. And hell, in college, the hormones are still charging like bulls in Barcelona. Harbach captures perfectly the bubble of a small liberal arts college—for everyone there, except maybe the other-worldly Owen, there is nothing but Westish. I could relate; my experience at Xavier was similar.
Harbach also does a nice job with the relationship between Owen and Guert. He could have played this in a stereotypical fashion: closeted University employee in his sixties clumsily and perversely seduces a confused male student. But Guert was no pervert, trolling for men in airport bathrooms. And Owen couldn’t be further from confused; maturity and coolness was present in every word he spoke. Instead of such a tired stereotype, Harbach presents a complex and modern love story. That he does it within a “baseball novel” is even more daring. I’m sure there have been plenty of surprised readers.
I loved the baseball. Regular readers of this blog know I’m a fan of our national pastime. I was glad this book came along when it did, as I’m stuck in the winter doldrums, missing a nightly Reds game to watch. I’ve already noted the descriptions of baseball games and the importance of the sport to the main plot in this book. Harbach takes another step, creating a book within the book, also called “The Art of Fielding,” which is written by Skrimshander’s idol, the famous (and fictional) shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. It’s loaded with nuggets of wisdom, central to both baseball and life. Old-time baseball lovers will enjoy the game when Henry is being celebrated for tying Rodriguez’s record. Rodriguez is in the stands, there is drama on the field, and the chapter ends with Rodriguez discussing one of the book’s central themes: doubt. It’s a spectacular chapter.
I love that the game in which Henry ties Aparicio’s record is the game when he hits Owen in the face with the baseball. Henry’s “errant” throw was not scored as an error because the game was called mid-inning. That’s a very intentional detail by Harbach, I think. That moment, the throw that caused all that followed, could never have been an error. Sure, the plot would have survived if Harbach’s imagination scored it that way, but then all that followed would have been because of an error. It’s a subtle point I’m making (and probably not doing it well) but I thought it showed an incredible attention to detail by the author. A friend noted this book was written “with confidence.” Seconded.
I could go on, obviously. Others have noted the influence of John Irving and Jonathan Franzen (both who blurbed this book on the jacket) and to that list I would add Tom Wolfe. There are many layers to this book, each of which could be explored in a lengthy discussion or a paper or over wine. If you need a book club book, this would be a fine choice.
I’m rambling and gushing here, I know it. I’ll quit and end frustrated that I don’t think I’ve done an adequate job explaining why I liked this book as much as I did. I suppose my feelings about this review will have to stand as a stark contrast to my feelings about “The Art of Fielding.”
Thanks for reading.