04 August 2011

Book P(review): The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Summary, taken from publisher website: At Westish College, a small school in Wisconsin 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, realizes 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. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth,
The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others.

But saying that this is a book about baseball is like saying that Moby-Dick is a book about whaling.  I use the comparison deliberately despite its triteness because Melville himself plays a small but essential role in this debut novel.  It's a book that's got both heart and soul, set in academia but not really of academia.  It's a testament to the human spirit, in a sports-triumph yay-team kind of way, but beyond that, it's a celebration of the human condition, all of our glorious foibles and hangups and endless striving.  I've rarely met characters who were so gloriously human and complicated and fucked-up and lovable AND real. That Schwartzy -- I wanted to hug him, reassure him, slap him silly.  Many times.  Sometimes simultaneously.  And Owen -- I want to know how he managed his level of Zen detachment toward everything that was important to him.  And Guert, bless him -- what an upstanding train wreck of a man. 

Harbach's turn of phrase is generally good and occasionally brilliant, but what surpasses his prose is his generosity of spirit towards his characters.  Henry, Schwartz, Owen, Pella, Guert: they're all magnificently flawed and equally likely to evoke feelings of compassion in the reader as frustration. There are several passages that I marked in my ARC, but there's only one that I'll share here.  It stands out for me because the town & college it refers to are right across the river from where I live now and because I'm amazed at the audacity and careless cruelty of rich, privileged white people even today. Westish College baseball team has reached the national championship for the first time, pitted against Amherst College:
While Schwartz lay awake, he tried to concoct a pregame speech that would whip his team into a frenzy.  A real fire-and-brimstone number, based on his favorite theme, that ageless angelic theme, of the underdog outlasting the favorite, the oppressed bitch-slapping the oppressor.  He was going to start by bringing up the namby-pamby Amherst mascot: Their team was called the Lord Jeffs, after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the 18th century British general who advocated using smallpox-infected blankets against Native Americans.  And--so went the speech--not much had changed in three hundred years.  The Amherst players were still Lords, still hip-deep in old-school power and privilege--imagine the practice facilities they had! Imagine the jobs they'd be given when they graduated! By comparison, the [Westish] Harpooners might as well have been sucking on small pox blankets.  They were going to answer to guys like the Amherst guys for the rest of their lives...Their first, best, and last chance for preemptive revenge was here, now, tonight.  Crush the Lords or be forever crushed. 
This book was one of the Editors' Book Buzz titles at BEA this year and I read an advance reading copy from my sales rep.  It will be published next month. And I would encourage anybody who likes a good, long character-driven book to pick it up.  Don't worry if you're not a baseball fan.  Don't worry if you don't like books about college boys. Just read it.


  1. This sounds great, Emily. Something my husband--the baseball fan--and I could both love. Can't wait to read it.

  2. Definitely will be buying this for that special man in my life (and reading it before I wrap it up for him) ;-)


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