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The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Little, Brown & Company
by David Anderson (0-0)
I loved this book. I encouraged my best friends, even the cheap ones, to buy it in hardback. I told my dad to buy it today, don’t wait for Christmas. Told my uncle but he had already read it and nominated it for his book club. I emailed a college buddy and he went to the library only to find out he was 78th in line to check it out.
Disclosure: I know a disproportionate number of people who are in the 99th percentile of The Art of Fielding target audience.
Harbach’s debut is a healthy literary novel that gives a realistic representation of baseball and life at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Mike Schwartz and Henry Scrimshaw are the baseball playing protagonists for the Division III Westish Harpooners. Schwartz is the team captain from Chicago; Scrimshaw, a defensive prodigy from North Dakota. Two kids plucked from the places where liberal arts colleges love to find unlikely scholars and introduce them to the joys of Melville, Emerson and Natural Light. Westish is, as the admissions brochure surely claims, a college that changes lives. While Harbach hangs his story around the gym with an emphasis on the preparation to win, the story is more about how lives change than it is about a baseball season.
Harbach does do a great job with the baseball, which is no small feat. The few embellishments are easily forgiven and invoke the classic baseball literature of John R. Tunis. We get the sanctuary of sport and flawed athletes who passionately pursue perfection. It’s a throwback, but not nostalgically naive. There is a heavy dose of modern diversity, including a homosexual romance, which is all the more powerful stuffed in a book so traditionally masculine.
Harbach tells a strong story and gives a tremendous gift to anyone who enjoys their baseball mixed with Melville.
by Ken Honeywell (0-3)
The first thing you hear about The Art of Fielding is that it’s a baseball novel. And it is–sort of, in that three of the most important characters are baseball players.
But “baseball novel” has a “not for me” ring to it for so many people that it seems a disservice to call it that. If you don’t love baseball novels (I do), how about campus romances? How about stories in which the bonds of friendship are frayed, lives are destroyed, illicit affairs are imagined and consummated? How about novels filled with sly literary allusions–written with enough finesse to make them seem natural, effortless, and deeply satisfying if you get them, and immaterial if you don’t?
The fact is, The Art of Fielding is a terrific novel, period. It concerns the exploits of one Henry Skrimshander, the most elegantly consistent shortstop machine ever to grace a college baseball diamond. Henry, who plays for the Westish College Harpooners, fields everything hit inside his considerable range and makes a perfect throw every time–
–until he can’t. With disastrous consequences for his team, his friends, and himself.
In truth, not much of the action in The Art of Fielding takes place on the field, and it’s less interesting than the off-field interactions among the winning and memorable characters–Henry’s friend and mentor Mike Schwartz, Westish College President Guert Affenlight, Affenlight’s estranged daughter Pella, and Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate,” Owen Dunne, chief among them.
So it’s not really a baseball novel (except that, it is. If you love baseball novels, it so is). And it’s long and a little slow (and gorgeous, and exhilarating, like a 15-inning pitcher’s duel). And the final big plot twist resolves things a little too easily for our heroes.
No matter. The Art of Fielding is a great novel, period. No more adjectives required.