BOOK: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011)

To fans of baseball, this book will be an utterly delightful novel of the game, with the added bonus of a well-written and engaging character drama on the side.  To those who couldn’t care less about sports, it’ll be a brilliantly conceived story about five people at a small private college who “come of age” (in a sense) simultaneously, with an unobtrusive framework of baseball holding it all together.

I am, in case you’ve forgotten since my last ballplayer Boyfriend of the Week write-up, a huge fan of baseball.  But the friend who gave me this book is more of the take-it-or-leave-it type.  I imagine we got some very different things out of this novel.  Yet, we both agreed on one thing for sure:  it is all-around excellent.

The story begins with a ball game.  High school senior Henry Scrimshander is an ace shortstop with an almost spiritual approach to fielding that gets noticed right away by the catcher of the college league team playing nearby.  As it turns out, Mike Schwartz is not just a genius catcher, he’s also the captain of the team at Westish College, a small private school in Wisconsin.  Stunned by Henry’s grace and instinct on the grass, Mike pulls every string he can find to land Henry a baseball scholarship to Westish for the next year.  Henry, thrilled to be able to continue playing ball, college or not, immediately becomes Mike’s protegé, and the two form a close friendship as Henry’s first year of college launches, spending every waking moment together training.  It’s not long before Henry is the team’s star player, eventually attracting the attention of big league scouts and agents battling to sign him before anybody else can.

At the same time, Henry is also forming a tight relationship with his room- and teammate, the quiet, bookish Owen, who is almost more like the team’s mascot than its infielder (they call him Buddha, and he spends most of the games reading on the bench).

Owen, on the other hand, is forming a new partnership of his own — a sexual and loving relationship with the president of Westish, the much-older Guert Affenlight, a man who had never before indulged in or even truly felt an attraction to another male, but who hasn’t been able to get Owen out of his mind since meeting him.  As their love blooms, Guert becomes more and more willing to risk everything to be with his new love, including his career and his relationship with his daughter, Pella.

Pella has just enrolled in Westish herself, after a failed marriage left her reeling and uncertain of her future.  Worried about the strange changes in her father’s behavior, she turns to Mike for insight and that pair ends up falling in love as well.  Henry to Mike, Mike to Pella, Pella to Guert, Guert to Owen, Owen to Henry:  and so closes the circle.

At first, our team of five connected souls are blissfully happy.  Everything changes, though, the moment Henry makes his first terrible error on the field, a wild throw that ends up beaning Owen in the head so hard he nearly dies.  This one bad throw knocks down what turns out to be a long train of dominoes, launching every character into crisis.  By the end, every tie between the five is fraying, every future is up for grabs, and every character is being sucked down by their own personal hell.  How this group of extraordinarily loyal and loving human beings get out of their funks is powerfully emotional and absolutely enthralling.

That’s the non-baseball part of the book.  The baseball part is full of ball game commentary and insight, excerpts from Henry’s favorite baseball philosophy book (The Art of Fielding, by Henry’s hero, record-holding shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (who I’ve theorized is an amalgam of Luis Aparicio, a real famous shortstop, and Alex Rodriguez, a primo example of the way in which real-life stress on the brain can devastate performance on the field)), and one of the most masterfully spot-on explanations of why baseball lovers love baseball I have ever read — the perfect rebuttal to anyone complaining the game is “too slow.”  It goes like this:

Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game.  Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse — these were melee sports.  You could make yourself useful by hustling and scrapping more than the other guy.  You could redeem yourself through sheer desire.  But baseball was different.  [Mike] Schwartz thought of it as Homeric — not a scrum but a series of isolated contests.  Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball.  You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football.  You stood and waited and tried to still your mind.  When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was.  What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error, but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?

Just getting the inside perspective of the game from a shortstop like Henry — a combination of studied player and natural — gave new weight to the complexity of the game for me.  It’s not the hustle of a basketball game, which seems to be more about reaction than forethought.  Nor is it the massive crush of football.  It’s a game played deliberately, thoughtfully.  And that is why those of us who love it love it so damn much.

This novel is one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time. A sports story loaded to the brim with emotion and insight.  A character study punctuated by the author’s clear passion for America’s pastime.  It’s a story of love from every angle — boy and girl, boy and boy, friend and friend, kid and sport, writer and writing — and a wonderful one at that.  This is a novel I’ll be passing around my friends and family (you’re next, Mom!), and one I look forward to reading again some day.

This is Harbach’s first book, I was astonished to discover.  Fingers crossed his next one is already in the works.  If it’s as good as this one was, I’m sure to love it, no matter what the topic.  Just as you, baseball lover or not, will surely love The Art of Fielding.  Highly, highly recommended!  (Incidentally, this’ll be turning up on my list of favorites from 2011, which will go up on the BotW site early next week — I finished it right before Christmas, so it counts!)


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One Response to “BOOK: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011)”

  1. Kelly House Says:

    This book was featured on The Book Report(my favorite radio show) this month. Listen out for the book report and see what Elaine has to say.

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