Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Art of Fielding

It is no secret among those who know me that I love baseball movies. I love them. Not more than all other movies, but definitely more than all other sports movies (as a group, anyway, specifics can prove to be exceptions). I think some of that has to do with being a kid in the late-'80s and the '90s, when movies like The Sandlot (probably my favourite childhood movie), Rookie of the Year, and Angels in the Outfield all came out. When I got older and realized that all the great baseball classics started either Kevin Costner and Robert Redford, I was hooked. I mean, Bull Durham? The Natural? Field of Dreams? Do sport movies get better than that? Anyway, the reason I'm bringing any of this up on a book blog is because I only recently discovered baseball books, and, at least as far as Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding is concerned, the appeal is much the same.

What I have always loved about baseball movies, and now books, is that they are never really about baseball. Baseball is the catalyst, it happens regularly throughout the movie, but it isn't what the thing is really about. Or, maybe it is, but it manages to tie in so many other things that it doesn't matter how much about baseball you know in order to enjoy it. Everyone gets the baseball metaphor, and that's enough grounding in the sport to understand any action that takes place on the diamond. 

To that end, in Harbach's novel, baseball is the point around which the plot pivots, but the climax is not the big game, and that is immensely satisfying. The Art of Fielding follows the story arcs of five characters (and is told using four of these characters' voices), and is set at Westish, a smallish mid-Western college that has adopted Herman Melville – who once gave a lecture there – as its symbolic hero. Thus, the baseball team (and the other teams, but who cares about them) are the Harpooners. Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, and Owen Dunne all play for the Harpooners baseball team, which at the beginning of the novel, hasn't had a successful season in about 100 years. Guert Affenlight  is the college president, who, as a Westish student, actually discovered the transcript of Meville's speech that led to the rebranding of the school in his honour. His daughter Pella, recently returned, rounds out the top five. 

As in all baseball stories, the surface plot is simple. Henry is baseball genius. He plays shortstop and basically nothing can get past him. He plays errorless game after errorless game, and he brings the team together to boot. He was found (and recruited) by Mike Schwartz, the team captain, who takes Henry under his wing, training him hard, bulking him up, and being an all around pal. Own is Henry's gay roommate who also plays on the team – he's a good batter, but otherwise spends his time reading in the dugout. Although the novel begins at the beginning – with Mike recruiting Henry, with baseball tryouts, etc. – it fast forwards through two intervening seasons in order to get to the meat. It's Mike's last year on the team, they're playing gorgeous baseball, and then Henry misses a throw (his first missed throw) and the ball rockets into the dugout where it hits Owen in the face, and Henry's world falls apart.

Based on that description (which I admit is quite baseball-heavy) it would seem that Henry is the centre of the novel. And, in a way he is. That being said, though, each of the three other perspectives we get (Mike, Affenlight, and Pella) are equally as well-rounded and filled out as his, with none falling into a subservient role. I don't know how Harbach manages to keep four such distinct and full stories running at the same time, but it's a marvel to read. Each character has their own concerns, their own life, their own landscape, and their own voice, and although you're constantly cycling through perspectives (each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character), you never lose track of what's happening with anyone, or what they're dealing with. The rhythm of the novel is extraordinary.

One of my favourite things about The Art of Fielding, besides the baseball and the relationships and the writing, is the way Harbach portrays life at a small-ish self-contained university. I went to Queen's for my undergrad, and I was constantly reminded of that world while reading the novel. The way that buildings and lawns and bars are all communal, that success and failure in school can feel like your whole life, that you can go out to the one really nice restaurant in town and you're almost guaranteed to see one of your professors there – I love that. It's a different scene than going to a big city school, and Harbach captures it perfectly, without romanticizing or disparaging it. It's beautiful, really, and it made me miss Kingston in a way that I haven't since I left.

I think I could probably talk about The Art of Fielding for the rest of the month and not run out of things to say. And I'm sure that by the end I'd find something negative to say – even if it was just that I was ready to talk about something else – but right now I'm still basking in the glow of a really good story. There's something a little old fashioned about baseball, and although Harbach's novel is very much set in the present day, it retains a little patina of tradition, both in style and content. Honestly, I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Back Bay Books edition)


  1. I'm pretty sure I've never read a worse book that's received more hype. The Art of Fielding is to the novel what the summer blockbuster is to the movies: a heavily hyped investment property that appears to contain all the elements of a satisfying story but, on its release, reveals itself as anything but a rewarding experience.


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