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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

From the reviews I’ve seen of Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, it seems that a certain portion of readers came away disgruntled, and the reason for that appears to lie in the perception that the plot contained either too much or too little baseball. Some readers apparently felt misled when they discovered that the book wasn’t about baseball at all–while others felt that there was too much baseball detail. Well you can’t please all the people all the time, right? For the record, I read this novel for its campus setting.

The major plot thread of The Art of Fielding follows the relationship between two men: shy, talented Henry Skrimshander, a South Dakota native who’s noted for his tenacity by Westish College student Mike Schwartz during a game played in Peoria. Henry, at 17 is a “scrawny novelty” who plays shortstop. He’s from a poor family with no career plans other than to pick up a job at the same metalworking shop as his father, and perhaps, if he’s lucky, attend a few classes at the local junior college.  Henry is flabbergasted to find that with Mike pulling a few strings, he’s attending Wisconsin’s Westish College. After astonishingly successful college games, Henry finds himself being courted by scouts who throw out phenomenal promises of riches to come. But after an accident which involves Henry’s gay roommate, Owen, Henry loses his fragile confidence.

While Henry’s star rises, Mike’s hopes plummet, and Henry’s success seems to be in direct proportion to his mentor, Mike’s failures. Mike Schwartz’s sports days seem doomed due to a series of injuries which are compounded by his failure to get into law school, and as Henry’s career prospects wax, Mike finds himself wondering about his own career path.  Schwartz, who’s a college sophomore when he first spots Henry seems to be much older, more experienced and more mature, but as the future careers of these two friends alter, their unlikely relationship is threatened.

While all this is going on, another thread emerges involving college president, Guert Affenlight, and there’s a marvellous section detailing Affenlight’s obsession with Herman Melville and how the discovery of some ancient papers altered Affenlight’s career path. At 60, Affenlight,  a perennial bachelor who can claim an estranged daughter through a brief, youthful liaison, jumps off the deep end and risks his career for a secret love affair. To add to the drama, Affenlight’s daughter, Pella runs away from San Francisco and her much older, affluent, controlling architect husband. She moves back in with her father, enrolls in classes and promptly gets involved in the friendship between Henry and Mike.

The Art of Fielding, which screams for a film adaptation incidentally, is for this reader, a very American novel with its focus on the underdog who is given a chance to succeed. There was one point when I could almost hear the Rocky theme song blaring in the background, but with that complaint aside, for this reader, enjoyment came, oddly enough, not from the many male characters in the novel, but in the throughly delightful Pella–the president’s daughter who runs away from her husband and seems hell-bent on gluing herself to another male. One wonderful scene takes place between Pella and her husband, David, and it’s in this scene that the author shows us how we revert back to established patterns of behaviour, these familiar grooves scored deeply into terminally flawed relationships. Another delightful scene is a veritable Comedy of Errors with Affenlight adroitly avoiding a liaison with a suitable attractive woman who has no idea that her quarry has his sights set elsewhere.

At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Mike and Henry–two contrasts in physique. This story thread explores not only the relationship between two very different males, but also the human desire for success, and the point at which all of us realise that we are not particular showstoppingly gifted and talented. Mike sublimates his hunger for talent into his hopes for Henry:

All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.

But of course, there comes a point when the protegé disappoints or must move out from under his mentor’s shadow. This story element is the crux of the novel.  Throughout the novel, baseball Hall of Fame’s Luis Aparicio’s fictional book The Art of Fielding is referenced by Henry who treats it as his bible. 

The glimpses of the liberal, yet confining narrow campus life are seen in Affenlight’s perennial student lifestyle and his unquestioned devotion to all things Westish. Flashes of the youthful Affenlight are easy to connect to the much older man who seizes what he sees as a last chance to experience love–no matter the cost. This slice of life tale is handled deftly, with generosity to its subjects as both drama and tragedy strikes. Overall an enjoyable read but not without its flaws. In addition to the Rocky aspects of the tale which I disliked, one action collectively taken by the characters towards the end of the novel was unbelievable.

Author Chad Harbach apparently spent 10 years honing this novel, and in a bidding war, sold the book for ‘around’ $650,000. It’s nice to know that in these days of austerity, a first-time novelist can make a big score. Thanks to Kevin who bringing The Art of Fielding to my attention.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Harbach Chad