- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
- Hardcover: 528 pages
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (September 7, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-0316126694
Back-of-the-book blurb: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.
Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, wonders if he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths; the novel considers ambition and its limits, family and friendship and love, and commitment — to oneself and to others.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: A few weeks ago I highlighted The Art of Fielding, which J had removed from my hands as I read it, claiming it as his next read on our vacation this summer. In that earlier post, I referred to the novel as “J’s pick for fall.” Now that I’ve enjoyed it as well (I waited for him to finish it, didn’t wrest it from his hands), I concur that it’s quite a good book, one that I’d recommend as a “coming of age, for many ages.”
Do you have to like baseball to appreciate The Art of Fielding? No, you don’t need to have memorized player stats, but an understanding – and an appreciation – of the game and its culture will certainly come in handy. Take this little snippet, a locker room scene in which each member of the home team performs his own pre-game ritual:
Each Harpooner sat half or mostly uniformed in front of his locker, nodding along with his iPod’s pregame playlist. Schwartz used an ancient cassette-tape Walkman; only Henry didn’t listen to music at all. Izzy twisted his wristbands to the Nike insignia were aligned just so. Sooty Kim buttoned the bottom two buttons of his jersey, unbuttoned one, buttoned two more, unbuttoned one. Detmold Jensen worked at his glove’s leather with tiny pinking shears, snipping off a superfluous centimeter of lacing.
The author employs the names of real and imagined baseball greats to bolster the framework, citing the names of Rick Ankiel, Steve Blass, and Chuck Knoblauch, among others. The title of the novel is taken from the name of a memoir/guide of the same name penned by Harbach’s fictional professional shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. Henry has studied the book for years, memorizing the short paragraphs that seem to offer not only guidance to the budding ball player, but general life wisdom as well; similarly, Melville’s Moby Dick has been Guert Affenlight’s secular guide.
Harbach gives us enough just backstory on each of the five main characters (three male students, the college president, and his daughter) that we know how they came to be at Westish, and what may have formed the conflicts they now face. With such a strong and large group of characters, it would have been impossible to keep track of more childhood memories and side stories; in this sense, the limited background was a positive.
The third person omniscient narration offers an even look at each of these five characters, including the most telling times when they are alone with their thoughts. While Henry Skrimshander and his position as the star shortstop is the hub around which the other characters turn, they each struggle with their own external conflicts and internal demons; as in baseball, the way we field a play/choice can change the course of an entire game/life. Harbach handles each of these storylines skillfully and evenly in this most impressive debut.